I do not want to write about my mother. Especially after opening the box from the safe deposit vault. That paper stamped with swastikas, renaming her Sara, daughter of Israel and Sara. Another document asking the U.S. government to allow her entry, so she and I could leave the Dominican Republic and join my father in New Jersey.
“I am stateless, and without papers,” she explained.
Before my mother’s death, and the papers I inherited, I could write her off as a crazy rageaholic. Her anger simmered and exploded on me, the child who trapped her into being a 1950s housewife. But she was no homemaker, or mother. How could she be? Before 1938, her family had cooks, maids and governesses. She strutted down the promenade in Baden-Baden as if she owned the city. She dressed in fur and ermine for a masquerade party. I have the pictures. Such a beautiful child. Even with those haunted eyes. But she never shared her stories until she was in her eighties, and then it was too late for me, I didn’t want facts, I wanted her feelings, and she couldn’t share those. I don’t know if she was capable of love.
Without love, there is no home. Our apartment was beautifully furnished by my father. But he didn’t make any meals, except perhaps the occasional Sunday brunch. He was still at work while Mom took to the kitchen, cursing the food, poisoning it with her anger. I don’t know why she made pork chops and chicken for Dad, but only hamburger for me. Every night—hamburger, rice and salad. Pot roast was for special occasions like the high holy days, or company.
My friend Karen lived next door and would escape to my house to read comics and fish on Fridays. The rest of the time, I’d escape to her house. Oddly enough, both our mothers were named Doris. Aunt Doris baked cookies and made ham and chicken for dinner, which she coaxed me into eating. I slept over there a lot, looking out the window at my house, but never feeling homesick. Karen had her own bathroom, free of cat boxes in the tub. We sang in the tub and all around the house—with Aunt Doris adding her rich alto harmony. I felt at home until the moment I had to leave and go back to my own.
Surely you have some good memories of your childhood home, you ask. Yes. We lived on Water St., on a bay with its ever-changing scenery. Down the street was a boat club—a real boat club, not a yacht club. Karen and I went there almost every day 4/to swim or pretend to learn how to sail from older, handsome instructors. One of my fondest memories is walking down to the club during the eye of a hurricane. It seemed to unite our family, as we walked down to the clubhouse, me in the middle with Mom and Dad each holding one of my hands. I’m not sure if I just am imagining it now, but I felt safe. Other happiness: on Saturdays, Dad and I would sit on the big orange couch and listen to records from all over the world. I can still feel his gentle arm on my shoulder and smell the rich scent of his pipe. Mostly, though, I retreated to my room, read, did homework, talked
on the phone. Dreamed of the day I’d go to college and leave town.
I loved my high school years, studied hard, but seldom dated. Were they ‘fun”? Perhaps. By then my parents were working together as Dad “architected”. They were complete workaholics, 5/and my job was to graduate at the top of my class and get a scholarship to a good school. I still regret the day Bobby Lewis hitchhiked into town to see me during a snowstorm—and I told him to go back home because I had a test to study for. Boys were disposable, except if they disposed of me. Anyway, I never felt that it was my house, with room for my friends.
I never had a “homey” room or apartment at University. It was just a place to eat, sleep, study. I was surprised to see how other students decorated their places, adding comfortable couches, chairs, curtains. My home was the library. Four years later, I graduated. I remember being one of the last to leave campus. I had to return to my parents’ house. Less than a year later, I escaped to Canada with an American Army deserter.
Like my mother, and her mother before her, I struggle with cooking. I married a man who loved to cook, but once again, didn’t love me. Unlike my mother, he had no back story of survival. In retrospect, I can see how his mother and mine shared a similar lack of domestic or maternal leanings. But it was the 1970s, I was a feminist and loved to work. I bragged about our role reversal. Which worked until the day our son was born.
Children need homes. Our apartment had a couch. A second-hand crib unsafe by today’s standards. A wicker rocking chair loaned by a sympathetic landlady. A glorified two “burner” hotplate for a stove. A mattress on our bedroom floor.
We were in Canada, in a tiny rural village hours north of Toronto—where I had been happy and had found a home in a small publishing “house” that actually occupied a house. My office at the end of the second-floor corridor had no walls, but it was windowed and I sat there and typed like a sailor in charge of the ship’s helm. I worked from 9 to 6 or later, never wanting to leave my happy space. I took dictation, read from the unsolicited manuscript pile, wrote and edited books that I truly loved.
But the publisher went bankrupt and I lost my Toronto work home. My husband found a job working on a small paper a couple of hours north of the city. Too far to commute, and his editor found an apartment for us in a beautiful heritage farmhouse.
I should have been happy.
Sometimes I was. Sometimes he was home and we’d go cross-country skiing. But I was jobless except for occasional part-time work in the city. We’d bought a goat and kid. Emma Goldman and her billy, Ira (named for the Green Mountain man).
I’d had to learn to milk her. I liked the barn, with its smell of hay and straw. And I had a book on milking goats. So I sat there, book in one hand, Emma’s teats in the other. Nothing. Our farmer landlord John came by, looked at me, and roared. He wrapped his big paw around my hand, compressed and pulled mine. Whoosh. Years later I’d tell the story to CBC radio’s Sad Goat Café. They loved it—especially my punch line about how this intellectual was converted to hands-on learning.
There are more houses I could write about, but only one home. I left my loveless marriage, with my children, and struggled to make a home for them. But I kept trying to incorporate the love of a man. A man who would love me and them. And falling flat on my face.
Somehow I sensed that love was what made a home. I loved my children, but I didn’t love myself. Sometimes my daughter shared the house I had bought when she was a teenager. Sometimes my son moved back in. Their girlfriends and boyfriends were, for the most part, not welcome guests. I was only comfortable with the man she would marry. So comfortable that I never wanted them to leave. When they did, I had two dogs and four cats that tried to fill the void. But Maggie, the border-collie cross, and the most sensitive of the lot, would tilt her head at me, as if to ask me why I was depressed.
All the pets are gone now. As is Karen, who died a couple of years after I retired. For those years, I travelled down to her house, and felt at home. When I arrived, I’d ask which room I was in, and she’d smile and say, “your room, of course.” She meant the room her daughter had grown up in, but Liz was now married and had her own home. But I felt as at home in that room as I had in her house as a child. It was kind of weird that she had her own room, and shared it with a man, but every morning I ran down the stairs to join her in the kitchen, and tried to tease her into singing with me.
Karen’s gone now, and so is her house. No more sun-filled sailing parties or trips to New York City museums. I’ve got pictures of us from the age of three onwards. And I celebrate her daughters’ adventures on Facebook.
My daughter has bought a stone house that reminds us both of Karen’s, and sure enough there’s a room in it that’s “my room”. The house is full of warmth and love, and I am hugged to pieces by three sweet little boys.
I drive back to the city life I love and look forward to dinner with my son and a reunion with the trees, birds and flowers in my backyard ravine. I think I love them all. Maybe I am not homeless or adrift. Maybe I am home.