BIG WORD FOR FEELING AWFUL

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[Whatever the headline may suggest, this post is not about last Tuesday’s election.  My feelings about that are indeed awful, as if someone had suddenly and unexpectedly died, except it’s not the heartrending death of a someone but of political, ethical and perhaps even personal life as I and everyone I know has come to expect it. However, everything that can be said at this point has already been said, by other bloggers, columnists, friends.  As for the frighteningly uncertain future, we can only grit our teeth and wait for whatever comes next. So I am returning here to last May, after Bill’s death and my visit to the undertaker.]

Bill died on a Friday. On Saturday morning, of necessity, I visited the undertaker/funeral director. I then got myself home and didn’t go out until Monday.  There were comforting phone calls, which made me sad when they ended because I was alone in the house again. There was also cuddling with the cats and raw sorrow.  It felt as if a large part of me had been cut away, leaving a hollowed-out bleeding cavity. Solicitous acquaintances sent flowers.  I had no desire to eat (although I knew I should), and wished I could sleep (but couldn’t).  The refrigerator was still full of Orgain, a packaged drink somewhat like Ensure but designed by a doctor undergoing treatment for cancer and allegedly composed of more nutritious ingredients, which Bill had been able to consume even when the medication he was taking to slow the progression of his pulmonary fibrosis removed his appetite and made him nauseous.  I survived the first weekend on two or three daily vanilla Orgains.

I did go to bed early and lay there until it was light again, but if I slept (and I probably did, in fitful bits) I don’t remember it. I do remember my law-school-trained mind spinning like a kaleidoscope gone crazy, unable to focus either on my misery or what I had to do next on Bill’s behalf.  Which was to (1a) sell the red Honda he had driven; (1b) try to return to the distributor for credit his newest and virtually unused portable oxygen concentrator,  five pounds lighter than the one Medicare had provided — for which he had paid nearly $2000; (1c) close his credit card accounts; (1d) notify his insurers of his death; and (1e) verify that I would not need to probate the will, since New Jersey doesn’t require it if the decedent owned nothing solely in his own name at the time of death. There was also what had to be done, all by myself, on my own behalf. Which was to (2a) sell the condo as soon as I could, since it was both too big and too expensive for me to maintain alone much past the end of the calendar year without seriously dipping into capital; and also to (2b) find another place for the cats and me to live as soon as the condo was sold, although the money to buy this “other” place, when I found it, was solely the equity in the still unsold condo because I was pretty sure I didn’t qualify for another mortgage while I still had one. (A few weeks later, I found out I was right.  I was coldly informed by loan officers at two separate banks that I would need to show at least $10,000 in monthly income to carry the two mortgages, even for only the three months or so before the condo would presumably sell.  Hah.  That was not something I would ever have been able to do, even when I was working.)

The (1a-1e) through (2a-2b) in the prior paragraph is of course so neatly organized because I am writing this piece six months later; organization or any kind of  plan was completely beyond me that weekend.  My mind lurched from “close his credit card accounts” to “see if I can get a mortgage” to “should I take the car to Honda or try to sell it myself” to “do I know a lawyer I can consult about the will who won’t charge me” to “the condo is an unsightly mess of medical equipment and books all over the floor” to “how could he leave me to deal with all this by myself?” to “I need more Orgain from Amazon, chocolate flavor this time.”  Then one of the cats, still missing Bill, would come to the bed in the middle of the night to be scratched, petted and comforted. And I would cry, in the dark, into her fur.

Everyone who called advised doing nothing for a while until I felt stronger.  That was good advice. But the Type A person I also am thought: What do they know?  “Listen to what your body wants,” said Bill’s niece, a psychotherapist practicing in Israel.  Well, all right.  Unfortunately, by Monday — when I attempted to walk to the brick mailbox stand two driveways away from mine — I realized I could move only very slowly and was wobbling. Was my body trying to tell me something? I began to eat again, carefully, because I knew I should, and also because kind acquaintances were deluging me with offers of meals at their house, meals at restaurants, prepared meals brought in (one even vegan and surprisingly tasty) — none of which I could in good conscience refuse — and also because a survey of the refrigerator and pantry cabinet revealed so much food stored there to tempt Bill’s appetite that I would have to give it away, throw it all out or begin consuming some of it.  Sleep didn’t come as easily as the meals.  And the trips to the mailbox were becoming even more difficult. By the end of the first week, I was making them only every other day.  (Since Bill was the King of Catalogues, that meant the box was so stuffed when I did eventually open it that I hardly had the strength to pry out its contents and scraped the outsides of my fingers raw on the metal sides of the opening.)  A friend who picked me up to feed me rotisserie chicken and salad had stone slabs for steps up the grass from her driveway to the house. I had to ask her to let me clutch her arm to make it to the front door.

This was both embarrassing and worrying.  I was all alone in Princeton.  Although they were warm and supportive on the phone, one son lived in Florida and the other shuttled back and forth by train between work in D.C. and weekends with his still-young children and wife in New York.  If I became too weak to take care of myself, not to mention all the things needing to be done, then what?  By the time I stepped out the door to get the mail a week to the day after Bill had died, my heart was pounding loud and frighteningly fast, I gasped for breath as if I too had suddenly developed pulmonary fibrosis, and I was so dizzy the ground under my feet spun around. As I proceeded very slowly towards the box with legs far apart, like Charlie Chaplin, to keep some kind of shaky balance, I felt I might be on the verge of dying — not that very minute, but soon.  Although my head was still revolving like a top, I was able to grasp and hold on to one thought:  Call a doctor before it was too late.

Easier said than done.  For nine and a half years, since coming to Princeton, Bill and I had been seeing an internist highly recommended by the nurses in the major medical practice nearby as the most patient-friendly.  Dr. L. was indeed apparently much interested in each of his patients, at least for the time allotted him by the insurance companies, and even seemed to remember just about everything about you when you showed up for bi-annual checkups without first having to review your chart in your presence. But as we each grew older, and more symptoms of this and that surfaced, Bill pulled away. He was mostly seeing specialists by then, anyway.  I hung on to Dr. L. until last year, although Bill kept urging me to switch to Dr. G., another internist in the same practice whom he liked much better on the one or two occasions he had consulted him.

The cause of Bill’s disenchantment with Dr. L., and eventually mine, was that patient-friendly as he was, Dr. L. was a worrier. He was also perhaps over-impressed by our academic and professional credentials and shared all his proactive medical hypotheses with us.  If there were a symptom or a complaint, he not only knew all the conditions and diseases of which it might be a harbinger, which would need to be tested for, but would share all this (potentially scary) thinking with us.  In my seventies, I was sufficiently healthy that Dr. L.’s proclivities as one’s medical advisor didn’t really bother me. Later it did, very much. By then I had enough to worry about, without contemplating dire possibilities that might not come to pass.  But that’s another post, for another time.  Suffice it to say that last March, Bill prevailed, I switched to Dr. G., and obtained an appointment for the end of May.

Thus, in the middle of May when I suddenly needed him, Dr. G. had not yet met me. Moreover, a phone call revealed he was completely booked through the end of June, and certainly couldn’t squeeze in a new patient he didn’t yet know.  Although no one suggested it, I felt unable to return to Dr. L.  Nor would I under any circumstances take myself to the Princeton ER, given my recent experiences at that hospital.  (See “After Death, What?” TGOB, July 29, 2016.) However, Dr. G.’s appointment secretary was very kind when she learned my husband had recently died and I felt as if I were going to die too.  Her husband had died two years previously and she had felt exactly the same way.  She would try to find someone else to see me. (I did hope it wasn’t going to be Dr. L. but kept that to myself.) Good as her word, she called back an hour later with the name of Dr. S., who had recently joined the practice and therefore had an opening, five days from then (no, not sooner), at 8 a.m.

Beggars can’t be choosers.  In the meanwhile, I googled Dr. S.  His photo showed pink cheeks, a big smile on a round young face, lots of neatly combed dark hair; he looked as if he’d just emerged from college. Although he hadn’t gone to any of the medical schools known to me through fifteen years of living with Bill (a psychiatrist), young Dr. S. had practiced for a couple of years in Philadelphia, could probably determine whether I was dying or not, and could then hand me over to the appropriate specialist(s) to treat whatever was wrong with me.

Dr. S. looked exactly like his picture.  He might have been a classmate of  one of my sons when in their twenties.  Still, he was an M.D..  I explained why I was there. Husband died ten days ago. Heart fast and pounding. Unable to breathe. Legs like cooked spaghetti.  So dizzy the world was turning round and round.  No balance.  Unable to think a straight thought.  “Well, let’s see,” said young Dr. S. soothingly, reaching for his tools.  My blood pressure was normal.  My heart rate was normal.  My blood oxygenation level was 98-99 (so the breathing was normal).  “Then why am I feeling like this?” I demanded. “As if I were going to die?”  Young Dr. S. must have been a very good student in whichever medical school he had attended.  He knew exactly what ailed me.  It sounded as if it had come right out of a textbook.

“Somatization!” he declared.  

He meant it was all psychosomatic.  The pounding heart, the breathlessness, the vertigo, the loss of balance, the inability to focus.  I had never heard the noun form before, but if there’s a medical adjective, there’s usually a big and latinate related noun. “It’s just a reaction to your loss,” he said to me in a voice appropriate for addressing a small child or someone not quite with it.

And what was I supposed to do with this information? Learn to live with it? Dr. S. mentally turned pages till he reached the one that dealt with treatment for the grieving patient. He then told me I needed sleep and food. I was to get eight hours of sleep, and if I couldn’t fall asleep when I went to bed, I should get up and read till I felt sleepy, and then try again.  I was to eat whatever I wanted, even if it was french fries, without worrying about it, because I now needed the calories.  I suppressed various impulses to tell him I wasn’t stupid and instead listened impassively, not quite the good and grateful patient contemplated by the medical textbook but close enough. What was the point in pushing it with young Dr. S.?  He was doing the best he could.  He also told me to exercise. “Even if I’m moving like Charlie Chaplin, but more slowly?”  Yes, exactly.  And then I would start to feel better.  Well, perhaps that’s what the medical textbook said. “Could you also write a scrip for ten days of a mild sleeping pill?” I asked.  “To get me through till my appointment with Dr. G.”  No, young Dr. S. feared I might become addicted.  If I really couldn’t sleep after the getting up and reading for a while, I might try Benadryl, which is over-the-counter and not (he said) addictive.

While waiting in line at Rite-Aid to pay for the Benadryl, I thought about Dr. S.’s big word for feeling like death.  Somatization. I had never believed that symptoms of what were later diagnosed as real physical complaints, like chronic fatigue syndrome or Lyme Disease, were psychosomatic, even if they were first dismissed as such.  Apparently I was wrong. It seems in some instances the body does speak up to tell you what you’re really feeling.  Mine, for instance. It was saying that all of me was suffering from mortal grief, even where my heart was actually beating regularly and my lungs actually functioning normally. I had just been been in shock too great to realize it.

And that did make me begin to feel better.  Or at least less worried. The Benadryl was a bad idea; one tablet knocked me out for eleven hours and left me woozy for twenty-four.  But after that I began to fall and stay asleep without help, except from the cats.  So although I continued to weep often and spontaneously when by myself, I had become somewhat more optimistic about being able to manage living without Bill, even if unhappily,  by the time my scheduled appointment with Dr. G. rolled round.

The following week, the undertaker called me to come pick up Bill’s ashes. For the $3,000 I had paid him he probably would have kept them for a while, had I asked. But better sooner than later, and be done for good with that unctuous and falsely sympathetic man. The bag containing the plastic urn seemed surprisingly heavy when I picked it up, although Bill hadn’t been tall or big-boned.  Regretfully, I needed Mr. Unctuous to carry it to my car for me.  I hadn’t thought to bring a cane (although there were eight or nine of Bill’s, in various styles, in the house) because I wasn’t used to needing one.  But I was still afraid I might fall if I held the heavy bag while going uncertainly down the incline from the funeral home door to the curb.  However, I wasn’t dizzy anymore, and that was something.  Besides, Dr. G. had written a scrip for physical therapy to get me stronger again and I already had a first appointment scheduled.  He had also given me another prescription, for thirty days of a mild sleeping pill.  I did fill it, but by then I no longer wanted or needed sleep aids. Six months later, the thirty little pills are still in the drawer of my bedside table.

WRITING SHORT: 41/50

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[Come summer heat, much of my blogging momentum melts away. Hence an experiment until Labor Day: fifty minimalist posts about whatever.]

There aren’t many fat people in Princeton – upscale home to Whole Foods, Whole Earth, innumerable gyms and physical trainers. You don’t see many in New York, either. People tend to walk more there. (And maybe food is more expensive.) Elsewhere in the United States, it’s often different. I was in Philadelphia last week to have some genetic testing done at the U. Penn hospital and arrived early. The waiting room had a glass wall overlooking a large atrium inside the front entrance. One expects, in a hospital, to see wheelchairs, walkers, canes. I didn’t expect to see so many still on their own two feet but visibly crippled in their slow, awkward movements by sometimes massive accumulations of fat.

Summer clothes emphasized the epidemic proportions of this affliction. It was hard to spot a man not part of the medical staff and also not preceded by a round heavy burden of solid fat beneath his clinging tee shirt. For the women — most of whom looked as if they wished they were anywhere else, but as that wasn’t possible, were at least invisible — I had particular sympathy. I remember what it was like during the couple of summers in the miserable nadir of my life when I carried nearly fifty extra pounds around with me and had to show up at work each day in business suit, blouse, and pantyhose.

I tried to make the fifty pounds less unsightly under high-priced size l6Ws from Saks. However, Saks didn’t keep my heavy upper thighs from sweating and rubbing together as I walked from the subway to the air-conditioned office. There I was able to somewhat hold my legs apart under the aproned desk. But going home, sweat and friction invariably tore holes in the pantyhose; the frayed nylon edges then rubbed the skin beneath them raw. Every step massaged salty sweat into open flesh. Once home, I would tear off my damp clothes and lie naked on the bed hating myself – with bloody inner thighs spread wide, so they might heal a little before tomorrow.

In time I managed to pull myself together, lose the extra pounds. But that Philadelphia trip brought back the memory. So many of us in America seem doomed to sink in misery under our own weight.

IN DEFENSE OF TALK THERAPY

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I save things that seem important: old photographs, records of the past I might want to revisit, writing that speaks to me.  Sometimes I forget about these saved things for years and then come upon them by happenstance while looking for something else.

As was the case yesterday when I was rummaging around in the front drawer of my father’s French Provincial desk (a North Carolina copy, not an 18th century original), which is practically useless for real work but decorative enough to keep in the living room to put a lamp and framed family photographs on.  (Also one of the cats likes napping on it in the evening.)  Its thin middle drawer contains, among a few other folders and envelopes, a binder of articles that at one time or another I thought keepers — including a review by Joan Acocella of several books about psychiatry that appeared fourteen years ago in The New Yorker. (May 8, 2000 issue.)  It was called “The Empty Couch: What is lost when psychiatry turns to drugs?” I had to drop everything I was doing and re-read it at once because, like Acocella, I am a member of the talk therapy generation.

I have at times made fun of my years on the couch, or on an expensive chair — expensive in terms of hours sat on, not initial cost. Called myself the Queen of Therapy.  (Woody Allen is King.) Have even dropped at least one light-hearted reference in this very blog to “the Hungarian,” the first of the two shrinks who you could say — not quite literally but not exactly metaphorically either — saved my life. He was the one who called me “honeybunch,” which may not have been quite in keeping with the ethics of the profession, but was what I then certainly needed to hear from somebody.

In fact, I probably owe the existence of my two children to this ebullient representative of the “paprikash of Europe” (his own term for Hungarian men). It’s also an accurate summary of my emotional life to say I haven’t been able leave a husband until I had a shrink, and haven’t been able to leave a shrink until I had a husband.  (You figure that one out: Bill is both.)

Like many things in my life, and in the lives of others who have lived as long as I have, talk therapy seems to be on the way out. It is time-consuming, expensive, participatory — and to those who haven’t experienced it (or haven’t paid for it out of pocket, as most of us in the old days did, going without other things to afford it), it may seem self-indulgent and too self-referential.  Medication, by contrast, is a quick fix for symptoms, once the doc figures out the formula that works.  Moreover, insurance companies love the biomedical approach: one, two, three and skidoo — out into the world again, seemingly good as new.  And what insurance companies love (and pay for) is what insureds get.

Acocella’s review considers how we reached this point, and the merits for certain kinds of patients of each approach.  But she, like me, clearly tips in favor of talking oneself back into balance, unless one is seriously ill. And because I feel I should atone somewhat for my occasional levity about what has helped me get through some very rough times, and also because she is eloquent, I am now going to turn the lectern over to her. She states the case for an approach to life’s problems that I hope will not entirely disappear:

For many people of my generation, especially women, psychotherapy is not so much an issue as a history, a language in which they learned to speak of themselves, and of life. This fact has been widely deplored. Psychotherapy, people say, has taught women to think of themselves as victims. It has made them narcissistic, turned them in on their own minds rather than out into the world, where the men seem to be living. True enough, of some therapies. In others women — and men — have learned to stop being victims and to act in the world…..

What do we think about psychotherapy? I don’t mean for inpatients. (They clearly need it; their lives are wrecked.) I mean for outpatients, the walking wounded — us. For some, it’s damaging. Even when it’s good, it’s very expensive, but compared with the church and family of yesteryear, whose loss it is trying to make up for, it’s a bargain. (In the church, you tithed, gave ten percent of your income. As for the family, it kept women at home. What was the cost of that?)

And when it is good, it is something hard to find in life, a moral dialogue.  [One of the writers reviewed says of one of her therapists that with him talk] “was not only the means to a therapeutic end, but … the central source of moral meaning itself.” …. [T]he truth is that a talk about moral meaning cannot not be therapeutic, if by therapy we mean not just symptom relief but a chance for a serious life.

The matters that people discuss in psychotherapy — whether they are really answerable for their lives, whether they should place their own welfare over another’s — are the things that people in the Bible were trying to decide.  They are the big questions, right? For patients in serious distress, pills are useful, but they cannot provide, don’t aim to provide, what psychodynamic therapy has at its core:…“a sense of human complexity, of depth, an exigent demand to struggle against one’s own refusals, and a respect for the difficulty of human life.”

The italics at the end are mine.  I like to laugh as much as the next person, but I have never wanted to be numbed into accepting what was, when what was was of my own making. You can choose to swallow something someone gives you, not feel the pain, and giggle. Or you can demand the right to struggle against your own refusals. Life is difficult, but if you choose not to experience it, not to work your way through the difficulties — can you say you’ve really lived?

BATHROOM

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[From a novella in progress.]

Anna had to make a wee, but the bathroom door was closed. Although the knob was above her head, she could reach it on tiptoe — a glass knob, with little smears of white paint on it. She turned it and pushed the door halfway open.

The toilet was right behind the door. Her naked father stood in profile, holding some part of himself over the bowl. She never saw his face. She never saw what he was holding. As soon as the door opened, he slammed it shut again, just missing her. His voice was a roar: “DON’T YOU EVER COME INTO THE BATHROOM WHEN I’M IN IT!” Why was he so angry when she hadn’t known he was there?

And she had to go so badly! She burst into tears. Her mother came running. Now her father was yelling at her mother. Her mother spoke through the door, saying calm-sounding things in the foreign language they used with each other sometimes. Then she took Anna away to the kitchen, where she taught her to sit on a saucepan on the floor whenever she had to make a wee or a stinky and her father was in the bathroom. The saucepan dug a circle in her hiney. It hurt.

“Sometimes I have to use a pan, too,” her mother confided.

Grown-up Anna occasionally looks at the height of doorknobs, trying to estimate how old she could have been when this happened. Certainly not more than three.

 

 

THE GIRL WHO BECAME MY MOTHER (PART VI)

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[Continued from five previous posts: “My mother was born on or about July 16, 1904 in or near what was then Vilna, Russia, to Vladimir Vainschtain and Berta Isaakovna Vainschtain (nee Shulman)….” When she was ten, her father died and her mother took her and her five-year-old brother to Baku, where she was sent to live with a married half-sister.]

IMG_0563LIFE IN BAKU.  This is what I know about my mother’s life in Baku:

School.  She said she had not been a remarkable student, and did not especially like school. Her best subject was mathematics. On a scale of 0 to 5, her marks — I am using her term — were always 5 in mathematics, usually 4 in everything else. (Mathematics probably meant arithmetic, at least at first, although later it would also have had to include algebra, geometry, and maybe even calculus.)  However, her academic performance was good enough to win her one of the few places reserved for Jewish girls in a “gymnasium” — one of the official schools in Tsarist Russia from which a diploma was necessary for entry to any institution of higher education.  Admittance to a gymnasium — for everyone — was by examination, but  the competition for the few Jewish places was fierce, especially where the Jewish population was large. According to a memorandum my father wrote of his own early life in Russia, the Jewish quota for all officially approved schools was ten percent of the student population. My father added that when his brother, five years older than he was, took the examination, there were not many Jewish families in Baku, and even fewer Jewish children, so it was relatively easy to win a place. But when the time came for him to apply, it was a different story!  A flood of people had come south, fleeing first the war, then the Communist takeover in the north — and of course among them many more Jewish families. My mother was two years younger than my father; her own disclaimers about her scholastic achievement to the contrary, her performance on the entrance examination must therefore have been very good indeed.

Piano.  She had wanted to learn to play the piano, perhaps because cousin Lisa had played. Lessons were available to her, but her half-sister had no piano on which she could practice. For a short while she tried to practice on the school piano after hours, when it was not in use. But this seems not to have worked out, and she soon gave up. When I was seven and she was thirty-four, my father bought a Steinway baby grand on time (monthly payments) and arranged for me to have lessons. My mother was very proud of that piano; it had the place of honor in our living room. Every day she dusted it lovingly and carefully wiped down the ivory keys one by one. But when I — the helpful seven-year-old — suggested that now we had a piano she could take lessons too and practice while I was in school, she shook her head. “No, it’s too late,” she said.

Crushes. As she entered adolescence, she lavished love on famous women opera singers and actresses. She even brought the cardboard-backed photograph of one of them to America — her favorite, I suppose.IMG_0541 It shows a  svelte woman in a floor-length dress and a long looped string of pearls looking up at the ceiling dramatically. The photograph is signed (in Cyrillic lettering) Vera Kholodnaya; I have no idea who the woman was.  Perhaps a silent film star? A renowned soprano? I remember my mother singing snatches of arias from Tchaikovsky’s Eugen Onegin while she did her housework when I was little.  [As a result, I can sing them, too:  “Shto-tyi, Lenski, nyi tansooi-ish?” Why, Lenski? Why aren’t you dancing?]

Appearances. One summer, she said, she had only two dresses, both white. But every day, she would wash and iron one and wear the other, so that she was always clean and neat.

Dieting. She also dieted, allowing herself every day only one small bunch of grapes and one piece of bread. [Here she would draw with her two forefingers on the kitchen table the outline of the square of bread which had been her self-imposed allotment.] She must have had iron self control. As for the length of time she maintained this spartan program, she never said. Telling me about it, when I myself was trying to slim down for college, was supposed to be inspirational. But by then I recognized a recipe for certain failure when I heard it, and did not seek further detail. My generation counted calories.

Vanity. She squeezed her feet into shoes that were too small for her because small feet, she said, were fashionable in Russia and she was vain. (It may also have been that during wartime and afterwards, pretty shoes were hard to find and you took what there was.) When I was growing up, she wore a 6 ½ and then a 7. She said that in Russia she had sometimes tried to get into a 4. As a result, she developed enormous red bunions that distorted the shape of her feet and later gave her much pain and many visits to chiropodists. It was not until she was nearly eighty that she gave up wearing stylish shoes and consented to become an old lady in sneakers.

Starvation. After the Red Army arrived in Baku in 1920, food became scarce. Soon there were no more potatoes. No more grapes. Bread was rationed. And what bread was available was so adulterated with sand she developed canker sores from malnutrition.

Romance.  At seventeen, she had a boyfriend. He was blond, with light-colored eyes; his oddly combed hair featured a wave at the upper left temple. He appears at the right side of the front row of a group photograph of university students, sitting on the ground and wearing a jacket with some kind of medal hanging on it.  My mother, unsmiling and plump (despite the diet), with long brown hair loosely heaped up beneath a large hat, is seated near the center of the second row.

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Although they’re not sitting near each other, I know the blond one with the wave is the boyfriend because among the photographs she brought with her from Russia is a separate small photo of the same young man; the hair, wave and medal are identical.

IMG_0550On the back of the small photo, in pale violet writing so faint it would be illegible even if I could read Russian, is a personal message to my mother from the subject of the photograph.  They saw each other for about six months, she said. Once she also told me they were engaged. I now think this means she slept with him, a confidence she would never have shared with me at the time in so many words. [After becoming a mother, she put her own past conduct behind her and adopted the two principles on which American mothers were then allegedly raising their daughters: (1) Men want only one thing; and (2) No man will marry used goods.]

Another loss.  This fiancé was not my father. So how did they break up?  (At last, a juicy part of the story!)  My mother pursed her lips and smoothed the sleeve of one of my father’s dress shirts on the ironing board before sprinkling it with water from a glass. “His family was connected to the nobility,” she said. “So they arrested him.”  And? The hot iron made a sizzling sound on the damp shirt. “We went every day to the prison.” She didn’t explain who “we” was. “Until we found his name on the list.” “What list?” I asked. “The list of those who had been shot. ” My mother turned my father’s shirt over on the ironing board to do the back.

MY FATHER.  Not long afterwards, my mother met my father, an engineering student at the Technology Institute in Baku –probably during the summer she turned eighteen, or just before.  “How did you meet?” I asked.  “At university,” she answered.  My father was more specific.  They had mutual friends, who introduced them on the esplanade running along the shore of the Caspian Sea.  Four or five months later, he managed to bring her out of Communist Russia with him. They made this exodus sound simple when I first heard of it.  He asked if she wanted to come.  She went to ask her mother if she should go.  Her mother’s response is the only thing she ever told me Berta Isaakovna said to her.  There was no equivocation:  “If you can get out, get out.  There’s nothing for you here.”  My grandmother also sold a featherbed and a pair of pearl earrings to give my mother the money to pay her passage.

But it wasn’t simple.  “Getting out” was far from easy.  However, I have already written that story elsewhere. It appeared in an online magazine called Persimmontree. You can read it here, if you like. This may therefore be a good place to stop, before my mother and father reach America, speaking no English, but leaving war, hunger, and executions behind them forever.

When they were both in their early eighties and my father happy to reminiscence, I asked him once why he had invited my mother,  met so recently, to come with him to America. He thought about it for a moment, smiled, and said, “I wanted sex.”  I looked at my mother — that staunch advocate in my girlhood of “Men don’t marry used goods.”

“Mama, was this true?”  She nodded sheepishly, and lowered her head.  And never mentioned it again.  But who’s to say she was wrong to succumb so quickly, and so soon after the execution of the first fiancé?  I have to be glad she did, or I wouldn’t be here to tell you about it.

My mother’s experiences in America may well have further shaped the girl of eighteen who arrived on Ellis Island.  But what she experienced in those first eighteen years — the repeated losses, deprivations, dislocations, fear (whether or not I have got the details quite right) — was formative.  They crippled her as a person, a woman, a mother.  Until she died she was afraid of “them” and what “they” might do.  (You couldn’t ask who “they” were.  She didn’t know.)  She placed excessive value on “money,” both overly respecting and also envying those who had the security and comforts it could buy.  She thought you were nothing without a man, you must do all you could as a young woman to attract one, and then once you had him devote yourself to him and his needs for the rest of your life so as not to lose him  — irrespective of the cost to your own needs and happiness.  She thought it was safest to stay home, it was bad to be Jewish, it was good to be beautiful.  Once I was no longer a little girl, it was never easy to be her daughter.  But that’s another story.

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So I will leave you with one last photograph of my mother and father on the streets of New York, six months after they arrived in America.  It was the summer of 1923, when she was nineteen and he was twenty-one and their whole grown-up life in a new country was still to come.

 

THE GIRL WHO BECAME MY MOTHER (PART V)

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IMG_0534[Continued from the four previous posts: “My mother was born on or about July 16, 1904 in or near what was then Vilna, Russia, to Vladimir Vainschtain and Berta Isaakovna Vainschtain (nee Shulman)….” Suddenly, when she was ten, there was no more father, no more home. Her mother took her and her five-year-old brother to Baku, where she was sent to live with a married half-sister.]

BEING JEWISH.  Berta Isaakovna’s two pre-marital conversions seem to have been concessions to the requirements of her husbands, without spiritual content. Whatever Vladimir Vainschtain might have offered had he lived, there was no religious instruction in my mother’s life. No attendance at synagogue. No ritual holiday celebrations. No prayers. No belief in God. At some point after I began to read, I learned from the books my mother purchased for me and also regularly checked out of the childrens’ library that other children said prayers at night. I thought that might be a good thing to do and asked my mother, then the source of all wisdom, how to pray. From a colored illustration of Christopher Robin at bedtime in my copy of A.A. Milne’s “When We Were Very Young,” I knew that you got down on your knees by the side of the bed, put your palms together, fingers pointing upward, lowered your head, closed your eyes, and addressed yourself to God. But who was God?

“A kind of spirit,” said my mother, trying to be helpful.

It wasn’t helpful at all. And what did you say to God?

“Whatever you like,” said my mother.

There was nothing in particular I wanted to say. I felt foolish on my knees beside the bed. And it was much warmer, and more comforting, under the covers. I soon gave up the experiment.

The papers with which she left Baku in 1922 declared my mother to be “Juive.” She regarded this classification of herself as being a mark of Cain, singling her out for bad luck and unfair treatment, and certainly nothing to advertise. It brought her no spiritual solace, no community, no source of help in troubled times. Irrespective of what she said to me about God and prayers when I asked her, she always believed in surviving on your own, no matter how difficult the problem or situation. No recourse to higher powers. “We’ll get by somehow,” she would say. With a sigh.

IMG_0556LISA.  Her cousin Lisa arrived in my mother’s life shortly after the separation from her own mother. She must have been Berta Isaakovna’s niece, as she seems not to have been connected to the married half-sister. Always referred to by my mother as “my cousin Lisa,” she had been at what my mother called “finishing school” in Switzerland when war broke out. Somehow she managed to get back to Russia and came to live in Baku. I have the impression she stayed with or near Berta Isaakovna, at least for a while. She would have been seventeen or so when my mother, aged ten or eleven, first met her, and she made such a strong impression that I may have heard more from my mother about this idolized  — and idealized? — young woman than I ever heard about herself.

Lisa was accomplished. She spoke languages — French and German probably, as well as Russian. She could play the piano, draw and ride horses. My mother thought she was beautiful. She is not especially beautiful in the one photograph that my mother brought with her, but she does look sweet, and intelligent, and — a word my mother would have used — “refined.”  Everyone liked Lisa. She was warm, and kind, said my mother, and took an interest in everything about her. Lisa was adventurous, too. When food grew scarce in Baku during the later years of the war, she took it upon herself to feed the family. She would ride her bicycle out into the country, where she bought sacks of potatoes directly from the farmers. Burdened with the potatoes, she would then manage to hitch a ride back with the soldiers on the troop trains heading into Baku. (Did they also hoist her bicycle on board?)

Listening to all this in the kitchen when I was thirteen and fourteen, usually when my mother was ironing and had time and some inclination to answer questions, I had mixed feelings about her cousin Lisa. I wanted to have what she had had, as perhaps my mother had also wanted it — finishing school, languages, horseback riding, charisma, sense of ease in the world. Lisa even had a romantic older brother, who had converted — ah, those convenient conversions in the Shulman family! —  and become a Cossack. He was attached to the Imperial Family, and fell in love with the Grand Duchess Tatiana, one of the Czar’s four young daughters. When his love letters to her were discovered, he had to be smuggled out of the country in a haycart!

But I also resented my mother’s admiration for Lisa. Did she love her more than she loved me? On the other hand, how could you hate someone who had evidently been so kind and affectionate to a little cousin without any real home?  Thinking about Lisa sometimes made me feel mean-spirited and selfish.  Especially when I learned that although Lisa was very attractive to men, she purposely sacrificed herself for the good of the family.  Beautiful and desirable, but living in perilous times, she sold herself to a wealthy and older Turkish businessman who had proposed to her, because he agreed to help her relatives with money in exchange for her hand in marriage.  At this point in the narrative, I would picture lovely Lisa in a white nightgown on her wedding night, lying meekly with parted legs beneath a fat and oily dark-skinned man with pock marks and garlic breath — all to save her relatives from starvation. No objective correlative supported this unappetizing picture;  my mother, who had actually seen the groom, said merely that he was “all right.”

IMG_0559Then Lisa and husband went away, to wherever he had come from, and there was in due time a little daughter whose photograph at age six or seven, with a big bow in her hair, Berta Isaakovna mailed after my mother had come to America. The daughter didn’t look “Turkish” at all.

Maybe when I grew up, we could go to Turkey and I could meet Lisa?  No, my mother told me. Lisa was dead. Of tuberculosis.

How old had she been?  Twenty-eight.

It’s possible my mother had no close woman friend during the rest of her long life in part because no one else could ever measure up to her cousin Lisa.

[To be continued….]

 

THE GIRL WHO BECAME MY MOTHER (PART IV)

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IMG_0534[Continued from the three previous posts:  “My mother was born on or about July 16, 1904 in or near what was then Vilna, Russia, to Vladimir Vainschtain and Berta Isaakovna Vainschtain (nee Shulman)….” Suddenly, when she was ten, there was no more father, no more home.]

LOSS.  My mother’s only words about losing her father were these: “My father died, and my mother took my brother and me away to Baku.”  [Nearly seventy years later, I can still hear her voice as I type. Like many Russians, she could never pronounce “th” properly; it always came out as a “d.”   The “o” sound in “mother” and “brother” also gave trouble; it sounded more like “ah,” as in “far.”]

Even in my early teens, this violent fissure in her childhood sounded awful to me. Had her mother taken her and her brother away because of the war?

“No. Because father died.”

What had her father died of?

“He was older than mother, and had grown children already.”

Was this an answer?  Had he died of a heart attack? Cancer?

She didn’t know. “He was old.”  Which must have been what she had been told at ten, and had never revisited.  Rather like Vilna being forever “now part of Poland.”

And why had her mother chosen to go to Baku — so far south on the Caspian Sea?

She would shrug. “I had a half-sister there.”

It was exasperating. But at thirteen and fourteen, I didn’t know enough to ask more.   And at ten, she probably hadn’t understood enough of what was happening to be able to explain, even if I had known what more to ask. Now I wonder why Berta Isaakovna could not have remained in Vilna. Had the property been sold and the proceeds divided between the widow and all the children under the terms of Vladimir’s will? Did he leave it to a grown son by his first wife, who knew how to run the business? (Was there such a son?) Did he hold the land and house as a life estate, which terminated at his death? Had he merely rented the land and house?

Or was war already rumbling on the border when he passed away, so that his widow snatched up her children and traveled as far away from the front as she could, leaving the liquidation of her husband’s estate to his lawyers?  This last hypothesis presupposes Berta Isaakovna as a woman who played it safe. The German army didn’t actually reach Vilna until 1915.  It’s true that between 1915 and 1918, when it was under German occupation, food shortages and discriminatory levies on the Jewish population in Vilna did make living conditions there increasingly difficult. However, if Vladimir Vainschtain died when my mother was ten, then Berta Isaakovna left the area with her children in 1914, the year World War I began but a year prior to Vilna’s occupation by German troops.

Irrespective of the real answer to the question of why mother and children moved south, which I will never know — for the little girl who was my mother it could have made no difference. All at once she lost her father, her home, her friends at school. These losses were soon compounded by another. Berta Isaakovna apparently now needed to work. After reaching Baku, she entered a military hospital as a nurse, taking five-year-old Osia with her. Ten-year-old Meera, my mother, went to live with a married half-sister, so that she “could go to school.”  It’s likely that she never again actually lived under the same roof with her mother.

I don’t understand this. Osia would also have needed to go to school within a year or two of their arrival in Baku.   If there was a school for him near this “military hospital,” why not one for my mother? Moreover, my mother remained in Baku until 1922, long after the conclusion of the war and even after the conclusion of fighting between the Red Army and the Whites. Why couldn’t Berta Isaakovna at some point thereafter have taken her daughter back to live with her? But there it is: as best I can tell, mother and daughter continued to live apart, although both in Baku, until my mother left for America.

This separation may not have been quite as harsh as I first thought when I heard of it as a young girl, and as it still sounds when set down without qualification. At that time, I even imagined a wicked half-sister  — rather like a wicked stepmother — and a resentful half-brother-in-law.

Was her half-sister nice to her?  “Oh, yes, very nice,” my mother would reply. “She had no children of her own.”

And I now think it must have been true that the half-sister was very nice, for my mother took with her to America two pictures of a small, slender dark-haired young woman, aged about twenty-five, with heavy eyebrows and round dark eyes, who — by the process of elimination and laborious translation of the inscription on the back of one of the pictures — I conclude must have been this nameless half-sister.

IMG_0553 If I’m right, she was probably no more than thirteen or fourteen when her father married my grandmother  — perhaps in part to provide her with a step-mother. She must therefore have been living at Vilna when my mother was born.  Until her own marriage, she may also have been a kind of second “mama” to my mother.  My grandmother’s choice of Baku as a destination after Vilna may thus have been specifically predicated on this young half-sister’s residence there with her new husband.

The second of the two photographs of this half-sister also includes (a) my mother, aged eleven or twelve, in a plain pinafore and blouse; (b) a little boy about six or seven who is probably Osia, because he is the right age and looks like photos of Osia when older sent to my mother after she came to America; and (c) another woman, seated, with a strong family resemblance to the half-sister but slightly older, whom I take to be a second half-sister.

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The two half-sisters look nothing like my mother or her brother, and therefore probably take after their own mother or else their father.  But this picture of brother, sister, and their two half-sisters may be what my mother considered her surviving family, since there was no separate photograph of Berta Isaakovna, her mother, in her effects after her death.  Admittedly, this is all surmise. But I fear surmise is as good a recovery of the past as I am ever likely to get.

About the half-sister’s husband I can say nothing, except that he seems to have made no objection to his wife’s little half-sister living under his roof for an open-ended period of time. I have some recollection of being told that he wasn’t there much. In the army? At thirteen, I didn’t think to ask more about him. Not surprisingly, my mother volunteered no confidences.

But did that mean she never saw her mother? Yes, she saw her. When there was no school. “And I went to see her at the hospital on Sundays. I had to step over the bodies of soldiers on the floor.”

When I was eleven (in 1942) — only a year older than my mother had been when her mother left her with her half-sister — my parents moved from Los Angeles back to New York, where we all three lived in a furnished apartment in Manhattan during the summer while they searched for an affordable unfurnished place near a “good” school district. What they found was in Kew Gardens, but the lease didn’t commence until after school began. So that I shouldn’t miss the first two weeks of seventh grade at P.S. 99, Queens, my father arranged with a colleague — a Dutch Jewish violinist who had managed to extricate his family from Europe just before World War II — to put me up on a folding cot in his daughter Betty’s room for the two weeks.  Betty was about my age.

Betty’s mother was pleasant to me. (Although she served stewed prunes and brown sugar on brown bread for breakfast and would not make hot cereal the way my own mother did, even when I asked.) I came home to my parents on Friday afternoon for the one intervening weekend of the two weeks. And my mother took the subway out to Queens two other evenings during each of the two weeks to have dinner with me in a neighborhood restaurant. But I missed her so much! I could hardly wait for her to come. When she finally rang the doorbell, I would fling my arms around her, my beautiful fragrant mother. And then, even while we were walking to the restaurant, and ordering, and eating, I would be counting the minutes I had left with her before she would have to go. It was all I could do to stifle the tears when she brought me back in time to get to bed when Betty did. And that was only for two weeks!

However nice her married half-sister may have been, the effect on my mother of permanent separation from her own mother, at a time when she had already just sustained major loss and dislocation, was literally unspeakable. She simply did not speak of her mother, who was my grandmother. I don’t know what my grandmother looked like, what she did, or (with a single exception, to be recounted later) what she said. The one possible photograph of her remaining in my mother’s possession when she died — if it is a picture of her, and it may have been of an aunt, her mother’s sister, who would then have been her cousin Lisa’s mother — shows a large-bosomed woman who is looking down, so you cannot clearly see her face.  If it is a likeness of my grandmother, it probably owes its survival to the fact that it is also a photograph of Lisa, whom my mother adored.

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At one time, I used to suppose this was a photo of my mother in her teens with my grandmother.  But closer inspection of the photography studio’s mark in the lower right hand corner shows a date of ’14.  In 1914, my mother was ten, so the young girl in the photo cannot be her.  As the photo was important enough for her to put it in her luggage in 1922, I conclude it must be of the beloved Lisa, with either her own mother, or — less likely but possible — perhaps with her aunt, my grandmother.

I know my grandmother and mother exchanged letters and some photographs from the time my mother left Russia until the Kirov purges in 1937, after which all correspondence between the Soviet Union and the United States abruptly ceased. But when my mother learned, through revived post-World War II correspondence from my father’s family, of her own mother’s death in 1942 — she threw out all her mother’s letters. And perhaps any photographs of her mother she still had.

“How could you?” I cried when I learned — at the age of fifty-eight, long after the fact — what she had done.

“What did I need them for?” she replied, at the age of eighty-five. “She was gone.”

But once, when I was fifteen and my mother was in her early forties, deeply unhappy for a multitude of identifiable reasons (which would not have been the only reasons), and I sat in our sunken living room trying to escape her misery by reading, I saw her rise from her chair and almost run to her bedroom down the hall, where she began to cry, a thing I had never heard before. Her sobbing frightened me with its intensity. And then there broke from her a single word. “Mama!” It would have been about the time she found out that her mother had died.

[To be continued…..]