A Mother and Daughter, Living Their Lives
I’m eight years old. My mother and I come out of our apartment onto the second-floor landing. Mrs. Drucker is standing in the open doorway of the apartment next door, smoking a cigarette. My mother locks the door and says to her, “What are you doing here?” Mrs. Drucker jerks her head backward toward her own apartment. “He wants to lay me. I told him he’s gotta take a shower before he can touch me.” I know that “he” is her husband. “He” is always the husband. “Why? He’s so dirty?” my mother says. “He feels dirty to me,” Mrs. Drucker says. “Drucker, you’re a whore,” my mothers says. Mrs. Drucker shrugs her shoulder. “I can’t ride the subway,” she says. In the Bronx, ride the subway was a euphemism for going to work.
I lived in that tenement between the ages of six and 21. There were 20 apartments, four to a floor, and all I remember is a building full of women. I hardly remember the men at all. They were everywhere, of course — husbands, fathers, brothers — but I remember only the women. And I remember them all crude like Mrs. Drucker or fierce like my mother. They never spoke as though they knew who they were, understood the bargain they had struck with life, but they often acted as though they knew. Shrewd, volatile, unlettered, they performed on a Dreiserian scale. There would be years of apparent calm, then suddenly an outbreak of panic and wildness: two or three lives scarred (perhaps ruined), and the turmoil would subside. Once again: sullen quiet, erotic torpor, the ordinariness of daily denial. And I — the girl growing in their midst, being made in their image — I absorbed them as I would chloroform on a cloth laid against my face. It has taken me 30 years to understand how much of them I understood.
My mother and I are out walking. I ask if she remembers the women in that building in the Bronx. “Of course,” she replies. I tell her I’ve always thought sexual rage was what made them so crazy. “Absolutely,” she says without breaking her stride. “Remember Drucker? She used to say if she didn’t smoke a cigarette while she was having intercourse with her husband she’d throw herself out the window. And Zimmerman, on the other side of us? They married her off to him when she was 16, she hated his guts, she used to say if he’d get killed on the job it would be a mitzvah.” My mother stops walking. Her voice drops in awe of her own memory; “He actually used to take her by physical force,” she says. “Would pick her up in the middle of the living room floor and carry her off to the bed.” She stares into the middle distance for a moment. Then she says to me: “The European men. They were animals. Just plain animals.” She starts walking again. “Once Zimmerman locked him out of the house. He rang our bell. He could hardly look at me. He asked if he could use our fire escape window. I didn’t speak one word to him. He walked through the house and climbed out the window.” My mother laughs. “That fire escape window, it did some business! Remember Cessa upstairs? Oh no, you couldn’t remember her, she only lived there one year after we moved in, then the Russians were in that apartment. Cessa and I were friendly. It’s so strange, when I come to think of it. We hardly knew each other, any of us, sometimes we didn’t talk to each other at all. But we lived on top of one another, were in and out of each other’s houses. Everybody knew everything in no time at all. A few months in the building and the women were, well, intimate.
“This Cessa. She was a beautiful young woman, married only a few years. She didn’t love her husband. She didn’t hate him, either. He was a nice man, actually. What can I tell you, she didn’t love him, she used to go out every day, I think she had a lover somewhere. Anyway, she had long black hair down to her ass. One day she cut it off. She wanted to be modern. Her husband didn’t say anything to her but her father came into the house, took one look and gave her a slap across the face she saw her grandmother from the next world. Then he instructed her husband to lock her in the house for a month. She used to come down the fire escape into my window and out of my door. Every afternoon for a month. One day she comes back and we’re having coffee in the kitchen. I say to her, ‘Cessa, tell your father this is America, Cessa, America. You’re a free woman.’ She looks at me and she says to me, ‘What do you mean tell my father this is America? He was born in Brooklyn.’ ”
My relationship with my mother is not good, and as our lives accumulate it often seems to worsen. We are locked into a narrow channel of acquaintance, intense and binding. For years at a time there is an exhaustion, a kind of softening, between us. Then the rage comes up again, hot and clear, erotic in its power to compel attention. These days it is bad between us. My mother’s way of “dealing” with the bad times is to accuse me loudly and publicly of the truth. Whenever she sees me she says, “You hate me. I know you hate me.” I’ll be visiting her and she’ll say to anyone who happens to be in the room — a neighbor, a friend, my brother, one of my nieces — “She hates me. What she has against me I don’t know, but she hates me.” She is equally capable of stopping a stranger on the street when we’re out walking and saying, “This is my daughter. She hates me.” Then she’ll turn to me and plead, “What did I do to you you should hate me so?” I never answer. I know she’s burning and I’m glad to let her burn. Why not? I’m burning, too.
But we walk the streets of New York together endlessly. We both live in lower Manhattan now, our apartments a mile apart, and we visit best by walking. My mother is an urban peasant and I am my mother’s daughter. The city is our natural element. We each have daily adventures with bus drivers, bag ladies, ticket takers, and street crazies. Walking brings out the best in us. I am 45 now and my mother is 77. Her body is strong and healthy. She traverses the island easily with me. We don’t love each other on these walks, often we are raging at each other, but we walk anyway.
The apartment was a five-room flat, with all the rooms opening out onto each other. The kitchen window faced an alley in back of the building. There were no trees or bushes or grasses of any kind in the alley — only concrete, wire fencing, and wooden poles. Yet I remember the alley as a place of clear light and sweet air, suffused, somehow, with a perpetual smell of summery green.
The alley caught the morning sun (our kitchen was radiant before noon), and it was a shared ritual among the women that laundry was done early on a washboard in the sink and hung out to dry in the sun. Crisscrossing the alley, from first floor to fifth, were perhaps 50 clotheslines strung out on tall wooden poles planted in the concrete ground. Each apartment had its own line stretching out among 10 others on the pole. The wash from each line often interfered with the free flap of the wash on the line above or below, and the sight of a woman yanking hard at a clothesline, trying to shake her wash free from an indiscriminate tangle of sheets and trousers, was common. While she was pulling at the line she might also be calling, “Berth-a-a. Berth-a-a. Ya home, Bertha?” Friends were scattered throughout the buildings on the alley, and called to each other all during the day to make various arrangements (“What time ya taking Harvey to the doctor?” Or, “Got sugar in the house? I’ll send Marilyn over.” Or, “Meetcha on the corner in ten minutes”). So much stir and animation! The clear air, the unshadowed light, the women calling to each other, the sounds of their voices mixed with the smell of clothes drying in the sun, all that texture and color swaying in open space. I leaned out the kitchen window with a sense of expectancy I can still taste in my mouth, and that taste is colored a tender and brilliant green.
For me, the excitement in the apartment was located in the kitchen and the life outside its window. It was a true excitement: it grew out of contradiction. Here in the kitchen I did my homework and kept my mother company, watched her prepare and execute her day. Here, I learned she had the skill and vitality to do her work well but that she disliked it, and set no store by it. She taught me nothing. I never learned how to cook, clean, or iron clothes. She was a boringly competent cook, a furiously fast housecleaner, a demonic washerwoman.
Still, she and I occupied the kitchen fully. Although my mother never seemed to be listening to what went on in the alley, she missed nothing. She heard every voice, every motion of the clothesline, every flap of the sheets, registered each call and communication. We laughed together over this one’s broken English, that one’s loudmouthed indiscretion, a screech here, a fabulous curse there. Her running commentary on the life outside the window was my first taste of the fruits of intelligence: she knew how to convert gossip into knowledge. She would hear a voice go up one octave and observe: “She had a fight with her husband this morning.” Or it would go down an octave and “Her kid’s sick.” Or she’d catch a fast exchange and diagnose a cooling friendship. This skill of hers excited me. Life seemed fuller, richer, more interesting when she was making sense of the human activity in the alley. I felt a live connection, then, between us and the world outside the window.
The kitchen, the window, the alley. It was the atmosphere in which she was rooted, the background against which she stood outlined. Here she was smart, funny, and energetic, could exercise authority and have impact. But she felt contempt for her environment. “Women, yech!” she’d say. “Clotheslines and gossip,” she’d say. She knew there was another world — the world — and sometimes she thought she wanted that world. Bad. She’d stop dead in the middle of a task, staring for long minutes at a time at the sink, the floor, the stove. But where? how? what?
So this was her condition: here in the kitchen she knew who she was, here in the kitchen she was restless and bored, here in the kitchen she functioned admirably, here in the kitchen she despised what she did. She would become angry over “the emptiness of a woman’s life,” as she called it, then laugh with a delight I can still hear when she analyzed some complicated bit of business going on in the alley. Passive in the morning, rebellious in the afternoon, she was made and unmade daily. She fastened hungrily on the only substance available to her, became affectionate toward her own animation, then felt like a collaborator. How could she not be devoted to a life of such intense division? And how could I not be devoted to her devotion?
We’re walking up Fifth Avenue. It’s a bad day for me. I’m feeling fat and lonely, trapped in my lousy life. I know I should be home working, and that I’m here playing the dutiful daughter only to avoid the desk. The anxiety is so great I’m walking with a stomach ache. My mother, as always, knows she can do nothing for me, but my unhappiness makes her nervous. She is talking, talking at tedious, obfuscating length, about a cousin of mine who is considering divorce.
As we near the library, an Eastern religionist (shaved head, translucent skin, a bag of bones wrapped in faded pink gauze) darts at us, a copy of his leader’s writing extended in his hand. My mother keeps talking while the creature in gauze flaps around us, his spiel a steady buzz in the air, competing for my attention. At last, she feels interrupted. She turns to him. “What is it?” she says. “What do you want from me? Tell me.” He tells her. She hears him out. Then she straightens her shoulders, draws herself up to her full five feet two inches, and announces: “Young man, I am a Jew and a socialist. I think that’s more than enough for one lifetime, don’t you?” The pink-gowned boy-man is charmed, and for a moment bemused. “My parents are Jews,” he confides, “but they certainly aren’t socialists.” My mother stares at him, shakes her head, grasps my arm firmly in her fingers, and marches me off up the avenue.
“Can you believe this?” she says. “A nice Jewish boy shaves his head and babbles in the street. A world full of crazies. Divorce everywhere, and if not divorce this. What a generation you all are!”
“Don’t start, Ma,” I say. “I don’t want to hear that bullshit again.”
“Bullshit here, bullshit there,” she says, “it’s still true. Whatever else we did, we didn’t fall apart in the streets like you’re all doing. We had order, quiet, dignity. Families stayed together, and people lived decent lives.”
“That’s a crock. They didn’t lead decent lives, they lived hidden lives. You’re not going to tell me people were happier then, are you?”
“No,” she capitulates instantly. “I’m not saying that.”
“Well, what are you saying?”
She frowns and stops talking. Searches around in her head to find out what she is saying. Ah, she’s got it. Triumphant, accusing, she says, “The unhappiness is so alive today.”
Her words startle and gratify me. I feel pleasure when she says a true or a clever thing. I come close to loving her. “That’s the first step, Ma,” I say softly. “The unhappiness has to be made alive before anything can happen.”
She stops in front of the library. She doesn’t want to hear what I’m saying, but she’s excited by the exchange. Her faded brown eyes, dark and brilliant in my childhood, brighten as the meaning of her words and mine penetrates her thought. Her cheeks flush and her pudding soft face hardens wonderfully with new definition. She looks beautiful to me. I know from experience she will remember this afternoon as a deeply pleasurable one. I also know she will not be able to tell anyone why it has been pleasurable. She enjoys thinking, only she doesn’t know it. She has never known it.
A year after my mother told Mrs. Drucker she was a whore, the Druckers moved out of the building and Nettie Levine moved into their apartment. I have no memory of the Druckers moving out or of Nettie moving in. People and all their belongings seemed to evaporate out of an apartment, and others simply to take their place. How early I absorbed the circumstantial nature of most attachments. After all, what difference did it really make if we called the next-door neighbor Roseman or Drucker or Zimmerman? It mattered only that there was a next-door neighbor. Nettie, however, would make a difference.
I was running down the stairs after school, rushing to get out on the street, when we collided in the darkened hallway. The brown paper bags in her arms went flying in all directions. We each said “Oh!” and stepped back, I against the staircase railing, she against the paint-blistered wall. I bent blushing to help her retrieve the bags scattered across the landing and saw that she had bright red hair piled high on her head in a pompadour and streaming down her back and over her shoulders. Her features were narrow and pointed (the eyes almond-shaped, the mouth and nose thin and sharp), and her shoulders were wide but she was slim. She reminded me of pictures of Greta Garbo. My heart began to pound. I had never before seen a beautiful woman.
“Don’t worry about the packages,” she said to me. “Go out and play. The sun is shining. You mustn’t waste it here in the dark. Go, go.” Her English was accented, like the English of the other women in the building, but her voice was soft, almost musical, and her words took me by surprise. My mother had never urged me not to lose pleasure, even if it was only the pleasure of the sunny street. I ran down the staircase, excited. I knew she was the new neighbor.
Everything about Nettie proved to be impossible. She was a gentile married to a Jew like no Jew we had ever known. Her husband was a Merchant Marine, away at sea most of the time. (“Impossible,” my mother had said, “what Jew would work voluntarily on a ship?”) Alone and apparently free to live wherever she chose, Nettie had chosen to live among working-class Jews who offered her neither goods nor charity. A woman whose sexy good looks brought her darting glances of envy and curiosity, she seemed to value inordinately the life of every respectable dowd. She praised my mother lavishly for her housewifely skills — her ability to make small wages go far, always have the house smelling nice and the children content to be at home — as though these skills were a treasure, some precious dowry that had been denied her, and symbolized a life from which she had been shut out. My mother — secretly as amazed as everyone else by Nettie’s allure — would look thoughtfully at her when she tried (often vaguely, incoherently) to speak of the differences between them, and would say to her, “But you’re a wife now. You’ll learn these things. It’s nothing. There’s nothing to learn.” Nettie’s face would then flush painfully, and she’d shake her head. My mother didn’t understand, and she couldn’t explain.
Rick Levine returned to New York two months after Nettie had moved into the building. She was wildly proud of her tall, dark, bearded seaman — showing him off in the street to the teenagers she had made friends with, dragging him in to meet us, making him go to the grocery store with her. An illumination settled on her skin. Her green almond eyes were speckled with light. A new grace touched her movements: the way she walked, moved her hands, smoothed back her hair. There was suddenly about her an aristocracy of physical being. Her beauty deepened. She was untouchable.
I saw the change in her, and was magnetized. I would wake up in the morning and wonder if I was going to run into her in the hall that day. If I didn’t I’d find an excuse to ring her bell. It wasn’t that I wanted to see her with Rick: his was a sullen beauty, glum and lumpish, and there was nothing happening between them that interested me. It was her I wanted to see, only her. And I wanted to touch her. My hand was always threatening to shoot away from my body out toward her face, her arm, her side. I yearned toward her. She radiated a kind of promise I couldn’t stay away from, I wanted … I wanted … I didn’t know what I wanted.
But the elation was short-lived: hers and mine. One morning, a week after Rick’s return, my mother ran into Nettie as they were both leaving the house. Nettie turned away from her.
“What’s wrong?” my mother demanded. “Turn around. Let me see your face.” Nettie turned toward her slowly. A tremendous blue-black splotch surrounded her half-closed right eye.
“Oh my God,” my mother breathed reverently.
“He didn’t mean it,” Nettie pleaded. “It was a mistake. He wanted to go to the bar to see his friends. I wouldn’t let him. It took a long time before he hit me.”
After that she looked again as she had before he came home. Two weeks later Rick Levine was gone again. He swore to his clinging wife that this would be his last trip. When he came home in April, he said, he would find a good job in the city and they would at long last settle down. She believed that he meant it this time, and finally she let him pull her arms from around his neck. Six weeks after he had sailed, she discovered she was pregnant. Late in the third month of his absence, she received a telegram informing her that Rick had been shot to death during a quarrel in a bar in port somewhere on the Baltic Sea. His body was being shipped back to New York, and the insurance was in question.
Nettie became intertwined in the dailiness of our life so quickly it was hard for me to remember what our days had been like before she lived next door. She’d slip in for coffee late in the morning, then again in the afternoon, and seemed to have supper with us three nights a week. Soon I felt free to walk into her house at any hour, and my brother was being consulted daily about Rick’s insurance.
“It’s a pity on her,” my mother kept saying. “A widow. Pregnant, poor, abandoned.”
Actually, her unexpected widowhood made Nettie safely pathetic and safely other. It was as though she had been trying, long before her husband died, to let my mother know that she was disenfranchised in a way Mama could never be, perched only temporarily on a landscape Mama was entrenched in, and when Rick obligingly got himself killed this deeper truth became apparent. My mother could now sustain Nettie’s beauty without becoming unbalanced, and Nettie could help herself to Mama’s respectability without being humbled. The compact was made without a word between them. We got beautiful Nettie in the kitchen every day, and Nettie got my mother’s protection in the building. When Mrs. Zimmerman rang our bell to inquire snidely after the shiksa my mother cut her off sharply, telling her she was busy and had no time to talk nonsense. After that no one in the building gossiped about Nettie in front of any of us.
My mother’s loyalty, once engaged, was unswerving. Loyalty, however, did not prevent her from judging Nettie, it only made her voice her reservations in a manner more indirect than the one to which she was accustomed. She would sit in the kitchen with her sister, my aunt Sarah, who lived four blocks away, discussing the men who had begun to appear, one after another, at Nettie’s door in the weeks following Rick’s death. These men were his shipmates, coming to offer condolences. There was, my mother said archly, something strange about the way these men visited. And Nettie herself acted strangely with them. Perhaps that was what was most troubling: the odd mannerisms Nettie seemed to adopt in the presence of the men. My mother and my aunt exchanged “glances.”
“What do you mean?” I would ask loudly. “What’s wrong with the way she acts? There’s nothing wrong with the way she acts. Why are you talking like this?” They would become silent then, both of them, neither answering me nor talking again that day about Nettie, at least not while I was in the room.
One Saturday morning I walked into Nettie’s house without knocking (her door was always closed but never locked). Her little kitchen table was propped against the wall beside the front door — her foyer was smaller than ours, you fell into the kitchen — and people seated at the table were quickly “caught” by anyone who entered without warning. That morning I saw a tall thin man with straw-colored hair sitting at the kitchen table. Opposite him sat Nettie, her head bent toward the cotton print tablecloth I loved (we had shiny boring oilcloth on our table). Her arm was stretched out, her hand lying quietly on the table. The man’s hand, large and with great bony knuckles on it, covered hers. He was gazing at her bent head. I came flying through the door, a bundle of nine-year-old intrusive motion. She jumped in her seat, and her head came up swiftly. In her eyes was an expression I would see many times in the years ahead but was seeing that day for the first time, and although I didn’t have the language to name it, I had the sentience to feel jarred by it. She was calculating the impression this scene was making on me.
It rained earlier in the day and now at one in the afternoon, for a minute and a half, New York is washed clean. The streets glitter in the pale spring sunlight. Cars radiate dust-free happiness. Storefront windows sparkle mindlessly. Even people look made anew.
We’re walking down Eighth Avenue into the Village. At the corner of Eighth and Greenwich is a White Tower hamburger joint where a group of derelicts in permanent residence entertains visiting out-of-towners from 14th Street, Chelsea, even the Bowery. This afternoon the party on this corner, often raucous, is definitely on the gloomy side, untouched by weather renewal. As we pass the restaurant doors, however, one gentleman detaches from the group, takes two or three uncertain steps, and bars our way. He stands, swaying, before us. He is black, somewhere between 25 and 60. His face is cut and swollen, the eyelids three-quarters shut. His shoes are two sizes too large, the feet inside them bare. So is his chest, visible beneath a grimy tweed coat that swings open whenever he moves. This creature confronts us, puts out his hand palm up, and speaks.
“Can you ladies let me have a thousand dollars for a martini?” he inquires.
My mother looks directly into his face. “I know we’re in an inflation,” she says, “but a thousand dollars for a martini?”
His mouth drops. It’s the first time in God knows how long that a mark has acknowledged his existence. “You’re beautiful,” he burbles at her. “Beautiful.”
“Look on him,” she says to me in Yiddish. “Just look on him.”
He turns his bleary eyelids in my direction. “Whadshe-say?” he demands.
“She said you’re breaking her heart,” I tell him.
“She-say-that?” His eyes nearly open. “She-say-that?”
I nod. He whirls at her. “Take me home and make love to me,” he croons, and right there in the street, in the middle of the day, he begins to bay at the moon. “I need you,” he howls at my mother and doubles over, his fist in his stomach. “I need you.”
She nods at him. “I need too,” she says dryly. “Fortunately or unfortunately, it is not you I need.” And she propels me around the now motionless derelict. Paralyzed by recognition, he will no longer bar our progress down the street.
We cross Abingdon Square. The gentrified West Village closes around us, makes us not peaceful but quiet. We walk through block after block of antique stores, gourmet shops, boutiques, not speaking. But for how long can my mother and I not speak?
“So I’m reading the biography you gave me,” she says. I look at her, puzzled, and then I remember. “Oh!” I smile in wide delight. “Are you enjoying it?”
“Listen,” she begins. The smile drops off my face and my stomach contracts. That “listen” means she is about to trash the book I gave her to read. She is going to say, “What. What’s here? What’s here that I don’t already know? I lived through it. I know it all. What can this writer tell me that I don’t already know? Nothing. To you it’s interesting, but to me? How can this be interesting to me?” On and on she’ll go, the way she does when she thinks she doesn’t understand something and she’s scared.
The book I had given her to read was a biography of Josephine Herbst, a ’30s writer, a stubborn willful raging woman grabbing at politics and love and writing, in there punching until the last minute. “Listen,” my mother says now in the patronizing tone she thinks conciliatory. “Maybe this is interesting to you, but not to me. I lived through all this. I know it all. What can I learn from this? Nothing. To you it’s interesting. Not to me.” Invariably, when she speaks so, my head fills with blood and before the sentences have stopped pouring from her mouth, I am lashing out at her. “You’re an ignoramus, you know nothing, only a know-nothing talks the way you do.” On and on I’ll go, thoroughly ruining the afternoon.
However, in the past year an odd circumstance has begun to obtain. On occasion, my head fails to fill with blood. I become irritated but remain calm. Not falling into a rage, I do not make a holocaust of the afternoon. Today, it appears, one of those moments is upon us. I turn to my mother, throw my left arm around her still solid back, place my right hand on her upper arm, and say, “Ma, if this book is not interesting to you, that’s fine. You can say that.” She looks coyly at me, eyes large, head half-turned; now she’s interested. “But don’t say it has nothing to teach you. That there’s nothing here. That’s unworthy of you, and of the book, and of me. You demean us all when you say that.” Listen to me. Such wisdom. And all of it gained 10 minutes ago.
Silence. Long silence. We walk another block. Silence. She’s looking off into that middle distance. I take my lead from her, matching my steps to hers. I do not speak, do not press her. Another silent block. “That Josephine Herbst,” my mother says. “She certainly carried on, didn’t she?”
Relieved and happy, I hug her. “She didn’t know what she was doing either, Ma, but yes, she carried on.” “I’m jealous,” my mother blurts at me. “I’m jealous she lived her life I didn’t live mine.”
Mama and Nettie quarreled, and I entered City College. In feeling memory these events carry equal weight: Both inaugurated open conflict, both drove a wedge between me and the unknowing self, both were experienced as subversive and war-like in character. Certainly the conflict between Nettie and my mother seemed a strategic plan to surround and conquer. Incoherent as the war was, shot through with rage and deceit, its aims apparently confused and always denied, it never lost sight of the enemy: the intelligent heart of the girl who if not bonded to one would be lost to both. City College, as well, seemed no less concerned with laying siege to the ignorant mind if not the intelligent heart. Benign in intent, only a passport to the promised land, City of course was the real invader. It did more violence to the emotions than either Mama or Nettie could have dreamed possible, divided me from them both, provoked and nourished an unshared life inside the head that became a piece of treason. I lived among my people but I was no longer one of them.
I think this was true for most of us at City College. We still used the subways, still returned to the neighborhood each night, talked to our high school friends, and went to sleep in our own beds. But secretly we had begun to live in a world inside our heads where we read talked thought in a way that separated us from our parents. We had been initiated, had learned the difference between hidden and expressed thought. This made us subversives in our own homes.
As thousands before me have said: “For us it was City College or nothing.” I enjoyed the solidarity those words invoked but rejected the implied deprivation. At City College I sat talking in a basement cafeteria until 10 or 11 at night with half a dozen others who also never wanted to go home to Brooklyn or the Bronx, and here in the cafeteria my education took root. Here I learned that Faulkner was America, Dickens was politics, Marx was sex, Jane Austen the idea of culture, that I came from a ghetto and D.H. Lawrence was a visionary. Here my love of literature named itself, and amazement over the life of the mind blossomed. I discovered that people were transformed by ideas, and that intellectual conversation was immensely erotic.
We never stopped talking. Perhaps because we did very little else (restricted by sexual fear and working-class economics, we didn’t go to the theater and we didn’t make love), but certainly we talked so much because most of us had been reading in bottled-up silence from the age of six on and City College was our great release. It was not from the faculty that City drew its reputation for intellectual goodness, it was from its students, it was from us. Not that we were intellectually distinguished, we weren’t, but our hungry energy vitalized the place. The idea of intellectual life burned in us. While we pursued ideas we felt known, to ourselves and each other. The world made sense, there was ground beneath the feet, a place in the universe to stand. City College made conscious in me inner cohesion as a first value.
I think my mother was very quickly of two minds about me and City, although she had wanted me to go to school, no question about that, had been energized by the determination that I do so. “Where is it written that a working-class widow’s daughter should go to college?” one of my uncles said to her, drinking coffee at our kitchen table on a Saturday morning in my senior year in high school.
“Here it is written,” she replied, tapping the table hard with her middle finger. “Right here it is written. The girl goes to college.”
“But why? What do you think will come of it?”
“I don’t know. I only know she’s clever, she deserves an education, and she’s going to get one. This is America. The girls are not cows in the field only waiting for a bull to mate with.” I stared at her. Where had that come from?
The moment was filled with conflict and bravado. She felt the words she spoke but she did not mean them. She didn’t even know what she meant by an education. When she discovered that upon graduation I wasn’t a teacher, she acted as though she’d been swindled. In her mind a girl child went in one door marked college and came out another marked teacher.
“You mean you’re not a teacher?” she said to me, eyes widening as her two strong hands held my diploma down on the kitchen table.
“No,” I said.
“What have you been doing there all these years?” she asked quietly.
“Reading novels,” I replied.
She marveled silently at my chutzpah.
But it wasn’t really a matter of what I could or could not do with the degree. We were people who knew how to stay alive, she never doubted I would find a way. No, what drove her, and divided us, was me thinking. She hadn’t understood that going to school meant I would start thinking: coherently and out loud. She was taken by violent surprise. My sentences got longer within a month of those first classes. Longer, more complicated, formed by words whose meaning she did not always know. I had never before spoken a word she didn’t know. Or made a sentence whose logic she couldn’t follow. Or attempted an opinion that grew out of an abstraction. It made her crazy. Her face began to take on a look of animal cunning when I started a sentence that could not possibly be concluded before three clauses hit the air. Cunning sparked anger, anger flamed into rage. “What are you talking about?” she would shout at me. “What are you talking about? Speak English, please! We all understand English in this house. Speak it!”
Her response stunned me. I didn’t get it. Wasn’t she pleased that I could say something she didn’t understand? Wasn’t that what it was all about? I was the advance guard. I was going to take her into the new world. All she had to do was adore what I was becoming, and here she was refusing. I’d speak my new sentences, and she would turn on me as though I’d performed a vile act right there at the kitchen table.
She, of course, was as confused as I. She didn’t know why she was angry, and if she’d been told she was angry she would have denied it, would have found a way to persuade both herself and any interested listener that she was proud I was in school, only why did I have to be such a show-off? Was that what going to college was all about?
I was 17, she was 50. I had not yet come into my own as a qualifying belligerent but I was a respectable contender and she, naturally, was at the top of her game. The lines were drawn, and we did not fail one another. Each of us rose repeatedly to the bait the other one tossed out. Our storms shook the apartment: paint blistered on the wall, linoleum cracked on the floor, glass shivered in the window frame. We barely kept our hands off one another, and more than once we approached disaster.
One Saturday afternoon she was lying on the couch. I was reading in a nearby chair. Idly she asked: “What are you reading?” Idly I replied: “A comparative history of the idea of love over the last 300 years.” She looked at me for a moment. “That’s ridiculous,” she said slowly. “Love is love. It’s the same everywhere, all the time. What’s to compare?” “That’s absolutely not true,” I shot back. “You don’t know what you’re talking about. It’s only an idea, Ma. That’s all love is. Just an idea. You think it’s a function of the mysterious immutable being, but it’s not! There is, in fact, no such thing as the mysterious immutable being … ” Her legs were off the couch so fast I didn’t see them go down. She made fists of her hands, closed her eyes tight, and howled, “I’ll kill yew-w-w! Snake in my bosom, I’ll kill you. How dare you talk to me that way?” And then she was coming at me. She was small and chunky. So was I. But I had 30 years on her. I was out of the chair faster than her arm could make contact and running, running through the apartment, racing for the bathroom, the only room with a lock on it. The top half of the bathroom door was a panel of frosted glass. She arrived just as I turned the lock, and couldn’t put the brakes on. She drove her fist through the glass, reaching for me. Blood, screams, shattered glass on both sides of the door. I thought that afternoon: One of us is going to die of this attachment. ■
This article is an excerpt from Fierce Attachments, a memoir by Vivian Gornick that will be published later this month by Farrar, Straus & Giroux.
This article from the Village Voice Archive was posted on August 28, 2020