© 2012 Amy Wachspress
I don’t remember making a conscious choice to attend college. I think I assumed that I would go because my parents expected it. I didn’t know what I wanted to study or what I would declare as my major. I have occasionally wondered if my father sent me to college so that I would find a college-educated husband who would be a good provider. Once I was there, however, I enjoyed it. My classes were interesting enough. I was well-organized and applied myself to my studies; but I was much more interested in my social life than my education. I was stylish, attractive, and (let’s face it) fun; so there was never a shortage of young men knocking on my door. Throughout my freshman year, I dated several of them at once; and I made sure they all knew I was dating several of them, so that none of them would become too possessive. I didn’t want to compromise my freedom to flirt by getting too serious about any one man.
My reticent younger sister, Irina, who visited me surprisingly often, could not comprehend my indifference toward my studies because she was desperate to leave home and go to college.
“The whole point of a college education is wasted on you,” Irina told me, in exasperation, as she tossed her backpack on my bed and her sleeping bag on the floor of my dorm room, on one cold, gray Friday in February. “For just a few years you have the opportunity to focus entirely on your studies, without having to worry about the pressures of money and a job and all that.”
I had heard this before and was inclined to ignore her. “How can you travel so light?” I asked.
“It’s just a weekend,” Irina replied, with a toss of her head and a look that implied that I was less than practical. “How many things can you wear in two days?”
“Tons,” I said with a grin as I pointed at the backpack. “I couldn’t even fit two days’ worth of shoes in that thing.” Then, glancing at her clunky hiking boots, I asked, “Did you roll a G.I. for his footwear?”
“Shut up!” she replied, with a good-natured laugh. “I have a present for you; but if you keep insulting me then I’ll keep it for myself.” Irina opened the backpack and removed a garment wrapped in lavender tissue paper, which she handed to me.
I folded back the tissue paper to find a slinky, satin, black undershirt with delicate lacework trim. “The moment I saw it, I knew I had to get it for you,” Irina explained. “The woman in the store called it a teddy.”
“The workmanship in the lace is exquisite. This must have been expensive.”
“Not at all. I got it at a thrift shop. I think it’s an antique or a Victorian replica. Try it on,” Irina urged, pleased with my reaction.
I removed my blouse and slipped the teddy over my head. It fit perfectly. As I gazed at my image in the mirror, I felt a sense of déjà vu.
“You look sort of different,” Irina said, with a note of puzzlement in her voice. We both stared at my reflection in the mirror, transfixed. Then I hastily removed the teddy and meticulously folded it back in the tissue paper.
“There’s something special about it, isn’t there?” Irina asked.
“Yes, there is,” I agreed.
Later that night, as I lay in bed listening to Irina’s even breathing as she slept on the floor next to me, I thought about the teddy. I imagined that I could hear it whispering to me from the drawer.
As soon as my sister left on Sunday, I locked myself in my dorm room and put the teddy on. I stared into the mirror and then, as if in a trance, I found some bobby pins and put my hair up. I looked at my reflection again. I felt as though I needed to remember something. I sat on the edge of my bed, closed my eyes, and waited, even though I had no idea what I was waiting for. Slowly, images floated into my mind. I saw myself in a white lace dress, buttoned up the front over the contours of my corseted hourglass waist. I held a ruffled parasol and walked in a spring garden. Although I have no idea how I knew; I did know that I was a Victorian woman in these images. A rose appeared, and then an entire basket of brilliant red roses. I could smell their intoxicating fragrance. Then the images and sensations faded and I was alone with my thoughts.
That was the first time.
After my experience with the teddy, I swiftly surrendered to a fascination with Victorian culture. I checked books out of the library and pored over pictures of nineteenth-century wallpaper, furniture, dresses, shoes, hats, etc. I took a course in Victorian and Edwardian history and another in Victorian literature. I read some of Elizabeth Barrett Browning’s poems so often that I began to memorize them. I spent hours combing antique shops, yard sales, and flea markets for “relics” (as I referred to my finds). I felt certain that I was reclaiming a culture that had belonged to me once upon a time, somewhere. The more I learned about the Victorians, the more Victorian images came to me when I sat quietly and cleared my mind of extraneous thoughts. At some point, I realized that I was remembering and I felt certain that I had lived a previous life during the Victorian Era.
In my sophomore year, I declared my major in history. I had pledged a sorority the previous year and when I returned in the fall, I moved into the sorority house, where I happily gossiped and swapped clothing, shoes, and accessories with my sorority sisters. I continued to date several young men at once, keeping them at arm’s length, even though most of them would have liked to move in closer than the length of my arm.
“How do you know when you meet the right person? The magic one?” I asked Mama once.
She replied, “It’s different for different people. For me, with your father, it dawned on me slowly that I could make a life with him.”
When I met Max, the thought of a life together did not slowly dawn on me; it fell on me like a piano. I was convinced that he was my soul mate. After I told Papa that I had “met my match,” he refashioned my words into “Sophie has met her Max.”
Max and I had known each other only a few months before we became engaged. It seemed obvious to both of us that we were meant for each other. Max was a senior when we met, and he was planning to go to medical school. I wanted to finish my undergraduate degree before marrying him. We shared the belief that sex was best saved for marriage and we settled in for a long engagement. My parents hosted a formal engagement party for us as soon as school ended for the summer. I think they wanted to show off the budding doctor I had snagged. Max’s parents drove down from Buffalo with Max’s younger sister for the party. Much to my parents’ delight, Max’s parents played bridge. The foursome spent many hours becoming acquainted over the card table.
That summer, I worked in Aunt Malka’s deli, while Max landed a summer job in a pharmacy, where he learned a great deal of useful information about prescription drugs. We didn’t see each other as often as we would have liked; but Max had been accepted to medical school and we would be living near each other when school started again, so we were patient. We had our whole lives together ahead of us.
On the first day of my return to college to begin my junior year, Max took me out to eat. It was a humid evening, with summer still beating its hot wings in the thick air. I watched from my upstairs window as Max parked his car and walked up the path to the door of the sorority house. He wore white linen trousers and a white polo shirt. He looked like a doctor already, immaculate and self-assured, someone you could trust with your life. A couple of yards from the door, he glanced up and noticed me at the open window framed by white lace curtains. We smiled as our eyes met and I raised a hand in greeting.
In that instant of recognition, my blood ran cold. Something deeply and disturbingly familiar registered in the back of my mind when I saw Max’s bemused, almost paternalistic, expression. Something long-buried raised its head and peered through the mist into my consciousness, and for a brief inexplicable moment my heart raced in my ears. Then I heard my name shouted from the bottom of the stairs by one of my sorority sisters and I snapped back to the summer’s day and the evening with Max that stretched ahead of me like a carpet rolled out to greet me. I took one last glance in the mirror and patted my hair, which I had put up to keep it off my neck. Without further hesitation, I went to him.
A few weeks later, I visited Irina, who had left home that fall and begun art school. She had swiftly distanced herself from the family and I didn’t like it. I had decided to make an effort to spend more time with her. As I sat on Irina’s bed in her dorm, I asked, “Have you ever had the feeling that you knew someone before?”
Irina pulled a sweater over her tousled hair. “What do you mean?” she asked.
“Have you ever met someone and it seemed right off the bat as if he was more than familiar and that you already knew him, without needing to get to know him?”
“This is about Max, isn’t it?” Irina asked. “You’ve got it bad.”
“It is about Max, but it could be about almost anyone. I mean that feeling of having known someone already the minute you meet him.”
“How would you have known him already?”
“Like in a previous life,” I mumbled. “Never mind. I must sound like I’m crazy.”
“You sound like you’re in love. And it’s great. I hope it happens to me some day,” Irina answered, generously, without so much as a smirk.
I appreciated the fact that she was taking me seriously and so I continued. “I’m not explaining this very well. It’s not just about Max or even about people, as a matter of fact. I get this feeling of recognition with objects too. I sometimes pick up something and feel like I held it before, a long time ago, in a different life. Have you ever seen a picture in a book of a different place and time and recognized it?”
My sister answered softly, “Yes.”
Our eyes locked. She knew what I was describing. She knew it firsthand. “Like what?” I demanded.
She hesitated before she replied, “Sometimes I see a pattern on an object. Usually an African object or an object created by indigenous people, like Native Americans. An object of art or everyday use, like a basket or a blanket. And I recognize the pattern,” Irina admitted cautiously. “And I realize that I know variations of the pattern. It’s an abstract kind of thing. I see in my mind’s eye different versions of the same pattern.”
“Do you imagine the pattern or the object, or do you remember it?” I asked, tensely.
“Remember,” Irina answered, somewhat reluctantly. “I remember different versions. Then I draw them or adapt them in my work. I have no idea how I could remember these things or where I saw them before.”
“It happens to me too. Just as you described it. I’m convinced that I can remember things that happened in a previous life. I’m sure that’s what it is. I’m not learning something fresh. I’m remembering it. But for me it happens with Victorian and Edwardian objects like clothing or, like you said, objects of everyday use. And it happens sometimes with Max.”
“I think I knew him before in a previous life.”
“You’re serious,” Irina said.
“Totally,” I answered evenly. If I could accept her description of her experience then I expected her to accept my description of mine, no matter how far-fetched it sounded.
“It happens to me primarily with the patterns I see on tribal and indigenous art. I have never felt as though I was recognizing a whole person.”
“Never with people?”
“Never.” Irina answered.
I married Max in August, two months after I graduated from college. Wrapped in a fantasy of pearls and lace, I walked down the aisle on my father’s arm. My parents threw me a huge wedding and invited everyone, including people I had never met and people I could not remember. My mother and I spent that entire summer planning the wedding. We were in our element making all the arrangements. Although we didn’t realize it then, my wedding was the last time that our family came together in the good ways that we could be together. Irina, who had changed her name to Rina, was spending as little time as possible with the family by then. Sarah left for college in the fall, and when she came home to visit she seemed preoccupied. I quickly became busy with my new husband and the community service work that I did through the temple; so it took me quite a while to realize the distance that had grown between me and my sisters.
The year after we married, I became pregnant. I would not be lying if I said that neither Max nor I was more excited about the pregnancy than Papa. He came up with an excuse to stop by our house every day to admire my growing belly. One morning he came ostensibly to bring me the newspaper!
“Papa,” I reminded him, “we have the paper delivered.”
“Well here’s another one. Did you eat a good breakfast?” he asked.
“I just woke up, I haven’t eaten anything yet.”
“You haven’t eaten yet? Have some eggs. Protein builds a strong baby. He’s going to be a baseball player.”
“How are you so sure it’s a boy?”
“Because it’s my turn to have a boy to bang around with,” he declared.
“Go to work, Papa. I’ll scramble some eggs.”
So it went. Papa bought stuffed animals, wooden trains, a rattle, and a sterling silver spoon for his forthcoming grandchild. As my due date approached, he produced larger objects, such as a crib, high chair, dresser, and changing table.
“I warned you how he is with babies,” Mama reminded me. “You don’t remember because you were so small; but Papa loves his babies more than anything. He would have had a whole yard full of them if I had agreed to it.”
When I went into labor, just before dawn on a rainy October morning, I asked Max not to call my parents until after the baby had arrived. I didn’t want my father pacing the waiting room for hours like a cartoon character. Max had chosen obstetrics as his field of medicine; but when it came to the birth of his own baby, his professionalism caved in to unbounded excitement and he hopped exuberantly around the delivery room like a bird in a field of seed.
My labor and delivery went by the book and by late morning I had given birth to a healthy boy with strong lungs (which he exercised the moment he emerged) and rosy skin.
“Papa will be impossible to live with, now that he was right about the gender of the baby,” I told Max. I called Papa at work, first, before calling anyone else; and I was still on the phone with Mama when my father materialized in my hospital room.
“OK,” Mama laughed, “if your father is there then I had better come over. Let me get off the phone.”
Papa’s doctor had recently persuaded him to give up cigars, so he had purchased boxes of bubblegum cigars, which he gave to everyone in his path from the moment I informed him of the birth of his grandson.
We named our boy Samuel, after Max’s grandfather; but Papa insisted on calling the baby Shmulek (the Yiddish version of Samuel). It was a delight to see Papa so gleeful. My father was a decent man, a generous man, and he deserved this happiness. His happiness confirmed my faith that justice prevailed in the grand mysterious scheme of the universe. Mama was also beside herself with excitement over the birth of her grandson. I never felt more like a dutiful daughter.
With so much help from my doting parents, I fared well as a first-time mom. When I was worn out, I called my mother, who usually came over and took the baby to give me a break. One or the other (or both) of my parents stopped in to see Sammy almost every day. He was a happy and self-contained baby, who giggled and gurgled contentedly. He rarely cried unless he was hungry.
When Max asked me, “Does it bother you to have your parents around so much?” I replied, “Not at all. Mama and I have always been close. And Papa is such a dear that I think I could put up with almost anything from him.”
After completing his internship, Max progressed to his residency in obstetrics and gynecology. He was an intensity addict, who loved doctoring families through that powerfully magical time surrounding the birth of a child. He gave his patients his undivided attention and full energy, sharing in their excitement and expectation; and he went the extra mile for families to help them cope if the going got rough, so that they had every chance of enjoying their new baby when it arrived. He had a sign in his office that read “No birth is routine.”
I was a bit jealous of Max, with his solid profession and a wide open future. Even though I shared in that wide open future, I wondered what profession belonged to me. In the meantime, there was Sammy. And in those days nothing made me feel more content than caring for my young son. I reveled in my ability to create order out of the chaos of mothering a baby. I organized a play group with other mothers of babies from our temple and we met twice a week, usually at my house.
In those early years, it seemed as though everything Max and I touched turned to gold. Sammy was adorable and duly adored. Aunt Ida spent almost as much time fawning over Sammy as Mama, who liked to say that her grandson was the most over-stimulated baby in the county. He was showered in toys, books, clothing, and attention; and he thrived on it. As he grew into a toddler, he investigated every single toy, looked at every page of every book, wore every piece of clothing, and laughed and smiled at everyone he encountered.
Sarah, who had become guarded and reserved after she went away to college, began calling me every couple of weeks after Sammy was born to hear about everything he did. I welcomed her phone calls as an opportunity to leave the door open if she should decide to talk about her own life; but she never did.
Rina (as she insisted on being called) remained even more reticent than Sarah. She kept her distance, never phoning our parents. I thought she would spend more time with the family after I had Sammy; but she showed no interest in Sammy. Apparently she had bigger fish to fry. She was busy launching a career as a graphic artist and could not be pried out of her intellectual and cultural circle in New York. Little me at home with my baby in the suburbs obviously bored her. I sometimes envied her the complex adult life she had created; but I never wanted to trade Sammy for all of that.
The baby brought me and Max closer in our relationship. Max delighted in sharing his amazing birth stories from work with me and I never tired of hearing about the myriad miraculous ways babies entered the world. Despite the exhaustion of first-time motherhood, the thought of making love to the father of my baby made me desire Max so much that we had sex even more often than we had before Sammy was born.
When I wasn’t busy admiring my remarkable, entertaining son or making love to my gifted, popular husband, I was busy maintaining my spotless, immaculate house. I had a charmed life and I was grateful for every minute of it. When Sammy grew into a sturdy and mischievous toddler, I took up cooking with a vengeance, preparing elaborate gourmet meals. I had read in a child development book that a toddler’s world was a laboratory for experimentation. So I put Sammy in the “laboratory,” which was under the kitchen table, with kitchen equipment (pots, spoons, plastic storage containers), or paper and crayons, or toys. Sammy experimented contentedly in the laboratory while I blissfully sautéed, chopped, marinated, rolled, sprinkled, ground, baked, sizzled, steamed, roasted, and tasted.
My contentment was disrupted when the clear surface of the undisturbed pond of my existence was abruptly broken by Rina soon after she graduated from college. I never did get the whole story from Mama; but the gist of it was that Rina announced she was moving in with her lover, Arthur. Papa disowned her on the spot, not because Rina was living in sin, not even because Arthur wasn’t Jewish (as far as I could tell), but mostly because Arthur was, as Papa said, a “schvartze.” In Yiddish, the word literally meant “black,” but it was used as a derogatory term for Blacks, as in “don’t ever ever ever marry one of them.” I don’t know which upset me more: my parents’ prejudice or Rina’s lack of concern for their feelings or opinions.
I told Rina that she shouldn’t have been so confrontational. If she had handled the situation more gracefully, then perhaps our parents would have accepted the situation. Rina said it was not a situation, it was her life, and she didn’t care if Mama and Papa accepted her or not. “Nate has wanted to wash his hands of me for years. Now he has an excuse,” Rina declared. I was angry at the whole lot of them, including Sarah, the family Switzerland, who refused to get involved in the conflict.
This rift between Rina and our parents unbalanced me. I felt like a child of divorce. It disturbed me to have our family in such tremendous disorder. I talked about it incessantly with Max, who listened graciously without attempting to offer advice. My parents behaved as if Rina had died. For her part, Rina had absolutely no interest in reconciling with them. I was thus forced to develop my own coping mechanism. I escaped from our family strife by going “junking.” I visited flea markets, garage sales, and estate sales. I crammed knickknacks into every corner of my house. Pin dishes. Cream pitchers. Doilies. Candlestick holders. Crystal. I found serenity in these beautiful objects from the past, which were like old friends lost and then rediscovered, a cycle completed. Their beauty and the order I gave to these objects in my home supported my need to set things to rights.
In the spring, I invited Rina, Arthur, and Sarah to stay with us for a weekend. I wanted to offer Arthur a warmer welcome to the family than my parents had done. Since I didn’t want Papa to turn up unexpectedly at our house and make a scene, I warned him in advance. “Papa, I called to let you know that Rina and Arthur will be spending the weekend. I didn’t want you to pop in unannounced and be taken by surprise.”
“I don’t know any Rina,” he replied sharply, and hung up. I didn’t hear from him for a week afterward.
The weekend visit went well. Max’s genuine warmth put Arthur at ease. They shared a passion for jazz and they delved into Max’s record collection while we sisters chatted in the kitchen with Sammy toddling between us. Sarah and Rina helped me start flower seeds in my new little greenhouse in the back yard. Sarah showed Sammy how to push the big sunflower seeds down into the dark earth with his dimpled pink finger. Max and Arthur went to the hardware store and brought home a hammock, which they slung between two elm trees in the back yard. Then they took pictures of each other playing with Sammy in the hammock. In the evening Sarah fell asleep rocking gently in it. I didn’t want to let my sisters go at the end of the weekend. Seeing Rina so comfortable and happy with Arthur relieved some of my anxiety. I hoped that one day my parents would accept my sister’s lifestyle.
During the year that followed, we sisters didn’t see much of one another, although we spoke more often by phone after the successful weekend visit. A couple of times, Max and I met Rina and Arthur in the city for dinner. Rina was receiving more work offers than she could accept. She and Arthur had landed a job together illustrating children’s books. I inferred that they were making good money. Sarah was in her last year at Vassar and planned to go on for a teaching credential. She had become quite the career woman. Sometimes I envied her; but I was enjoying being a mommy too much to think about going to work. Max and I decided to have another baby, which would delay any career plans for me for an indeterminate time. We looked forward to having another child with much anticipation. Neither one of us was inclined to want more than two children, which seemed like just the right number.
When I called Rina to tell her that I was expecting, she said, “I have some news too.” I could hardly believe it. “Both of us at the same time!” I exclaimed. “Do you want Max to deliver?”
“No, but thanks. Arthur’s cousin is a midwife and she’s here in the city. We’re fine,” Rina assured me.
“A midwife?” I asked, worriedly. “Is that safe? Don’t you need a doctor?”
“Not really.” I detected that tone in Rina’s voice that meant that she was trying to be patient while the rest of the world caught up with her maverick ideas. I managed to ignore it, despite her annoying condescension. I also chose not to express my disapproval about the fact that they were not married. I knew from experience that she would immediately clam up if I criticized her. I was sad that my new niece or nephew was to be born out of wedlock and would be forced, needlessly, to deal with the consequences of that. Rina could be so selfish sometimes.
After we hung up, it dawned on me that Mama and Papa would remain ignorant of Rina’s news unless I told them. I agonized over it for days; wondering if this might prompt them to make an overture of reconciliation. I had to tell them, but how?
I called Sarah. “Have you spoken to Rina?” I asked tentatively.
“About the baby? Of course. I can’t believe both of you at once!” Sarah exclaimed.
“We have to tell Papa and Mama,” I said.
“Why?” Sarah asked. “It won’t make any difference.”
“Of course it will,” I replied. “In fact, I think they might give up this ridiculous feud because of it.”
“I wouldn’t hold my breath,” Sarah warned.
In the end, I mentioned it as casually as possible to Mama while we walked to the park with Sammy. She thanked me for the information and changed the subject. It was a shocking brush-off and I didn’t know what else to say. I wondered if she would tell my father, but didn’t have the courage to ask.
Rina’s baby arrived on schedule, a couple of months before mine was due. Rina called me at eleven o’clock on a Sunday morning and greeted me with, “She’s here, Auntie Soph.”
“You had your baby? It’s a girl?”
“I certainly did. Labor is one wild ride! You should have warned me,” Rina exclaimed in a voice that vibrated with the birthing day euphoria I remembered so well from Sammy’s birth.
“You can’t really warn someone sufficiently, it’s something you have to experience yourself,” I pointed out. I heard music and laughter in the background. “It sounds like a party there.”
“It is. A lot of people are here.”
“Wait, where are you?”
“What are you doing at home?” I asked, in confusion.
“She was born at home,” Rina replied, “about an hour ago.”
“You had her at home? Is everything OK?” I asked in a voice ringed with anxiety.
“It’s OK, Soph. We planned to have her at home. We had three midwives here and a lot of friends. We’re fine, absolutely fine. The baby is spectacular.”
“What did you name her?”
“We had a lovely African name picked out for her, but the moment I laid eyes on her, I thought she looked like a Miriam. Arthur agreed. So we named her Miriam; you know, after that half-sister of mother’s who died in the war. I always remembered the story about her trying to rescue all those children and her bravery.”
“Miriam,” I repeated aloud, trying it out. “Listen, I’m on my way over.”
“You don’t have to race out,” Rina said with a laugh. “We’re not going anywhere.”
“I wouldn’t miss this for the world. I want to see my niece.”
As soon as I put down the phone, I packed up Sammy to head into the city. I called Max with the news and warned him I might spend the night. When Max heard that Rina had given birth at home, he hit the roof. “That is the most dangerous, most irresponsible thing they could have done!”
“They’re fine. She had a midwife. In fact she had three midwives.” I didn’t like his tone, even though in theory I agreed with him.
“I don’t care if she had a hundred midwives. What if something had gone wrong?” Max demanded.
“But what if? Three midwives does not equal a doctor or a fully equipped hospital.”
“I think it was a brave thing to do,” I said, defending Rina’s choice. Only moments before, I had been of the same opinion as Max; but I didn’t like him blasting my sister like that and so I felt obligated to take her side.
“Brave? To put a baby at risk? To risk one’s own health and safety?”
“What’s done is done and it turned out fine. I have to go.” I hung up before the conversation could turn into a major argument.
I was suddenly furious with our family for being so critical of Rina. Why did everyone have to find fault with Rina’s way of doing things? She was a visionary, a trailblazer. I was proud of her. She refused to be muscled back into the dark ages by men stuck in backward thinking. Like my husband and my father. The bullies. At that moment, I wished that I had taken a stronger stand in Rina’s defense in the past. I was angry at Max and at Papa. I was excited about the birth of my niece. I was pregnant, irrational, and fuming. I drove directly to my parents’ house, burst in the door like a madwoman, and ordered Mama to get in the car.
“What’s going on?” Mama asked in terror. “What happened?”
“Your granddaughter happened, and we’re going to see her. Get in the car.”
Perhaps if I had not been so distraught, Mama would have managed to refuse to go with me; but I think I took her by surprise with my emotional outburst. On the drive into the city, Mama said little; mostly because she couldn’t get a word in edgewise. Trapped in the car with me, she was forced to listen to my extended tirade on the complete idiocy of men. Sammy sat wide-eyed in his car seat clutching a stuffed dog until the motion of the car put him to sleep.
By the time we pulled up at Arthur and Rina’s house, I had spent my wrath and I discovered myself neck-deep in forcing a confrontation between my mother and my sister after over two years of non-communication. This may not have been the best time for it, since my sister had given birth to a baby only hours before. I told my mother, “I can’t force you, but I think you should go in there.”
“I’m not sure she would want me in there,” Mama pointed out dubiously. “It might ruin one of the happiest days of her life. Why don’t you go in first to see about it. I’ll stay here with Sammy so you don’t have to wake him just yet.”
As I rang the bell, I panicked. What had I done?
When the door opened, I was swept up in what seemed like Mardi Gras. The house was packed with jubilant celebrants. Paper storks hung from the lighting fixtures. The dining room table was laden with food. Music blasted. An eclectic mix of people of all different races danced and drank champagne together. On the couch, propped up on mauve, purple, and burgundy pillows, Rina and her baby girl held court. I promptly burst into tears as Rina’s guests parted like the Red Sea to let me through.
“My sister,” Rina called to her friends. “This is Soph, my sister.” Rina patted the couch next to her. “Come sit,” she commanded. So I sat, wiped the tears from my eyes, and took my niece Miriam in my arms.
“She’s beautiful. Absolutely beautiful,” I cooed. Miriam had an abundance of softly curled hair that ringed her nut-brown face. I looked up from my amazing niece and blurted, “Oh Rina, I’m sorry, I wasn’t thinking. Max was horrid about the home birth. I was angry and, well, it’s a long story. The upshot is that I have Mama in the car.”
“She’s in the car?” Rina asked uncertainly.
I burst into slightly hysterical laughter. “Poor Mama, I ran into her house like a demon and ordered her into the car. But she wants very much to see the baby.”
“Then what’s she doing in the car?” Rina’s voice had a slight edge to it.
“She’s watching Sammy. He fell asleep,” I answered, as if this was the real reason she had waited in the car.
“Well you’d better go get her.”
“I’ll be right back.” I handed Miriam to Rina.
“Find Arthur and warn him before you bring her in,” Rina requested.
I found Arthur and congratulated him, gave him a hug, and informed him that I had brought Mama. Then I went back to the car, where I gathered my things, realizing that I certainly was not spending the night, and handed my handbag and diaper bag to Mama so that I could hold Sammy, who was just beginning to wake up.
Arthur held the heavy, beveled glass door open for us. In the entryway, he welcomed Mama with no particular discernible emotion and pointed to the living room. I was worried, until he held me back as Mama proceeded into the house and reassured me, “It’s good that you made her come. It’s difficult, but it’s a good thing.”
I saw Mama bend stiffly to give Rina a hug and then Rina handed the sleeping newborn to her. I could not hear their quiet conversation from where I stood. Mama peered into the baby’s face and sat down on the couch next to Rina’s knees. Sammy was fully awake and hungry so I became preoccupied with getting him something to eat. While in the kitchen, I talked to a few of Rina’s friends. When I returned to my mother and sister, they remained exactly as I had left them, except that the baby had disappeared. Mama sat with her hands folded neatly in her lap.
“Where’s the baby?” I asked.
“Arthur’s checking her diaper,” Rina informed me. “Sit with us.” Rina pointed to a chair next to the couch. A handicapped man with deformed legs was playing peek-a-boo with Sammy. I remembered him from Rina’s graduation. He was one of her fellow students at art school.
“Tell me all about the birth,” I demanded.
Arthur brought Miriam back and I held her while Rina, eyes glowing, recounted the details of Miriam’s birth. The baby gazed at me with wide open, alert eyes.
The handicapped man wheeled around the house chasing Sammy, who giggled, while guests dodged them. He was pretty fast for a man in a wheelchair. Soon Sammy’s infectious laughter rose above the conversation and, as usual, he delighted everyone within range. His charisma always astounded and pleased me.
I wondered what thoughts were passing through Mama’s mind. She was probably feeling uncomfortable and would welcome a diplomatic departure whenever I was ready. I had virtually kidnapped her. Reluctantly I suggested, “Mama, we should probably head home. I have to fix dinner for Max; and Sammy is over-excited.”
Rina laughed. “Can’t Max fix his own dinner? And whatever will we do to entertain TJ if you take Sammy away from him?”
“I’ll come back when the house is less crowded,” I promised. “Remember to take care of yourself. Tell these people to go when you need to sleep,” I advised.
“I will. It’s OK. I’m good,” Rina responded. “Thanks for coming so quickly; and for bringing Mother.”
Rina took Mama’s hand in hers and said, “Thank you for coming, Mother. It made the day complete.” Mama kissed Rina on both cheeks. Rina continued, “She’s your granddaughter. Don’t be a stranger in our house because of the old bull.” Tears of relief filled my eyes at her words. I hoped that they would rebuild their relationship around this baby. But on the drive home my hope was shattered.
Mama drove, because I was exhausted. I asked her what she thought about our visit.
“Do you want the truth?” She sniffed.
“Miriam is a beautiful baby; however, I saw no sign whatsoever of our family’s features in her face. Countless generations of Jews, thousands of years of tradition, thousands of years surviving oppression to retain our identity, ends in that house. And look at that house! I wonder how anyone can live amidst such disarray. Did you see those piles of magazines stacked against the dining room walls? Who needs to keep so many magazines? Those plants in saucers on the windowsills are leaving damp rings of mold. There weren’t even curtains at the front windows. Any passerby can peer right in. Every surface in that house is piled with clutter and trash. Why bother to have tables or desks at all? It is impossible to sit at such a desk and pay bills or clear one’s brain. And I had to wonder about her friends. The young man in the wheelchair, poor fellow, seems normal enough. But what about those three godmothers? That one godmother, the fat one with the stringy graying hair, obviously had no bra on. Irina said she’s a former teacher of hers. Did you see her put her arm around the Spanish woman? I suspect they’re homosexuals. The swishy man in the ruffled apron who brought the trays of hors d’oeuvres around was definitely a homosexual. That Oriental lover of his was so loud. I was embarrassed to watch them carry on the way they did. And how about the godmother who insisted on playing a saxophone solo for the baby? What kind of crazy person plays the saxophone for a newborn? That third godmother, Norma, I remember her name because she had such a stylish hat, but her make-up made her look like a raccoon. I have to wonder what kind of childhood awaits that baby. Can you imagine growing up in such chaos, surrounded by that bizarre assortment of misfits? And that child is neither fish nor fowl herself.”
As I listened in astonishment as Mama described her perception of the scene we had just witnessed, I had to wonder for an instant if we had both been to the same house. I was shocked by her prejudices, and was reminded that she came from another country and another era, and that she lived in an insular conservative Jewish community. Her world and Rina’s world were light years apart and I was certain then that I had made a mistake by bringing her with me to Rina and Arthur’s house.
“I don’t approve, Sophie. I just don’t. I can’t force myself to approve. I’m extremely unhappy with her choices in life; but she’s still my daughter and, as God is my witness, I do want her to be happy. That is the truth. That was the one saving grace in today’s visit; she appears to be radiantly happy. I am glad for that. God give me the strength for the rest of it.”
“Are you angry with me for dragging you over there?” I asked.
“No, I’m glad that I got to see the baby,” she answered. “But please don’t tell your father that I went. You girls have moved on with your own lives. Your father is what I have left.”
After Miriam’s birth, Mama called Rina occasionally to ask her how she and Miriam were doing. When Rina brought Miriam to my house, Mama would come to see her granddaughter; but she never went to Rina’s house and, of course, Papa had barred Rina from theirs.
I followed close on Rina’s heels with my own baby. Until Joel arrived, I assumed that all babies behaved similarly. I soon discovered how vastly different babies are from one another. Sammy had been an easy baby. Everything pleased him. He entertained himself. He slept well. He ate well. In contrast, Joel had colic for the first two months of his life and therefore had difficulty sleeping because his tummy hurt. I stumbled around in a haze of sleep deprivation. If I sat down for more than a few minutes, I nodded off. I frequently stretched out on the floor where Sammy could climb on me, chattering away, while Joel slept in snatches and I drifted in and out of consciousness.
Joel was an active and demanding baby who rapidly became a toddler with no attention span whatsoever. While Sammy could entertain himself for an hour with a piece of string and a spoon, Joel picked up one toy after another and discarded each one within seconds. He never stopped moving and became furious when restrained or unable to accomplish a physical task he had set for himself. He loved the outdoors and became cranky if we stayed inside all day. He could have lived at the park. He required my full attention during every waking hour. I was grateful for Sammy’s imagination, which afforded me some measure of respite when he entertained Joel.
Papa saved my sanity during Joel’s early years. He never tired of reading the same story over and over again to Sammy or giving Joel pony rides around the living room on his back. Grandpa was their favorite toy, their favorite buddy, their favorite pet, their favorite partner in crime. Papa amazed me with the games he thought up and the activities he invented for his precious grandsons. No one held the attention of my whirling dervish Joel like Grandpa.
After I weaned Joel, I experienced a hormonal imbalance and Max diagnosed me as suffering from low estrogen. I became depressed for no reason. Max put me on the Pill, which improved my emotional state; however, I gained weight and felt sluggish. I had difficult mood swings, and at night, after the children went to sleep, I suffered from insomnia and caught myself wishing that I had a job to go to during the day instead of spending all my time at home with small children. I admired my father, who had served for many years as a city council member and was on the board of directors of our temple. I pondered what I wanted to do when I grew up. Max would support me in going to graduate school, but I didn’t know what I wanted to study.
When Sammy started kindergarten, I volunteered as the classroom mom, organizing parties and field trips for Sammy’s class. I became the secretary of the PTA. I coordinated the school’s annual fund-raising event. I attended the monthly school board meetings. I read Robert’s Rules of Order and took a workshop at the community college in facilitating efficient meetings. In addition to my extracurricular activities, I invested a great deal of my energy in maintaining a well-ordered house; which was challenging because, unfortunately for me, my darling boys unraveled everything as quickly as I could neatly tie it up.
I more frequently resented Max’s ability to waltz in and out as he pleased; his clothes “magically” laundered, his food “magically” cooked, and his house “magically” cleaned. I started to ask him to do things to help around the house. But why did I have to ask? Couldn’t he see that the bathtub needed cleaning? Couldn’t he do the dishes instead of assuming that I would do them? Why did I iron Max’s shirts while he read the newspaper?
Early one Saturday morning, I woke from a deep sleep to find Joel eye-to-eye with me, demanding a bowl of cereal. As I rose from the bed in a stupor and reached for my robe, I noticed Max sitting up in bed next to me, reading, oblivious to Joel’s needs. It had not occurred to him to intervene, to prevent Joel from waking me, to offer to get the child breakfast. I stopped dead in my tracks, removed my bathrobe, sat down on the bed, and said to Joel, “Daddy can get you cereal. He’s perfectly capable of getting cereal.”
Max looked up dumbfounded from his book. “Huh?”
“No, no I want Mommy to do it,” Joel demanded in a shrill voice.
“What?” Max asked. “Does Joel want something?”
I could see that Joel teetered on the verge of a tantrum. His voice had that near-hysterical edge to it. I shrugged back into my bathrobe and waved an arm, dismissing Max. “Never mind.” Max returned to his book.
Later that day, I overheard an acquaintance at temple complaining about how little her husband did around the house. I tuned right in to the conversation and soon found myself standing in a tight circle of women venting our frustrations. I had a few choice comments to contribute. One of the women, Anna, invited us to join a women’s group she was starting. Anna was a professional therapist, but this group was a personal thing for her own benefit. The group would meet once a week. I had heard about women’s groups but had never imagined joining one myself. I had a comical mental image of what went on at a women’s group; yet when the real opportunity to share my concerns and frustrations with other women presented itself, I said, “Where do I sign?”
As I turned to leave the conversation, Anna tapped me on the arm and suggested, “I know it’s none of my business, but have you told your husband how you feel about the housework? A lot of times, men just don’t realize. They have to consciously change their behavior. Try talking to him about it.”
The following Tuesday, I got up extra-early to go on a field trip with Sammy’s kindergarten class. When we returned from the field trip, I took the boys for their annual doctor’s appointment and then went straight home to make dinner. After dinner, I had a PTA meeting. So I got the boys ready for bed and left them on the couch with Max reading stories while I ran out to the school. When I came home, exhausted, at nine o’clock, I found the house in a shambles. Not a dish had been washed, not a toy put away. The towels I had thrown in the washer during dinner sat in a damp lump at the bottom of the machine. Max, my handsome husband, sat in bed in his handsome pajamas reading a pristine medical journal.
“Would it be so difficult for you to clean up the kitchen? Or pick up after the children? Or do a load of laundry? I am not a live-in maid service!” I exploded, to Max’s apparent bafflement, which infuriated me even more.
“I put the children to bed,” he defended himself.
“After I bathed them, fed them, and sat them neatly on the couch in a row,” I replied. “I have other things to do with my life than clean up after three boys.”
“Sophie, be fair. I work at a highly demanding job to support you and your boys in the manner to which you are accustomed. I thought we had a partnership, a contract if you will, that while the boys are young, I work and your job is to maintain our home.”
“Well you didn’t read the fine print in the contract. The fine print says: Sophie is not a servant, she is entitled to have a life. Just because my activities earn no money doesn’t mean they have no value.”
“Of course your activities have value. I appreciate everything you do. You’re a terrific mom and you manage the house like a well-run ship.”
“A well-run ship? Can’t you even think of an original metaphor?”
“Have I been remiss in showing my appreciation?” Max put on the wounded puppy look. It didn’t work.
“Appreciation isn’t the point. I shouldn’t have to ask you for help. You should just do it. Do the dishes to give me a break. Iron your own shirts. If I have a meeting, like tonight, then you clean up after the boys, and you do the laundry. Don’t assume that I am going to do everything. I don’t want to do everything. I have other interests. Other adult interests.”
“Soph, I love you. I want you to be happy.”
Max made me feel irrational and humored. “Then try doing some house work.” Why did I feel guilty making totally reasonable demands?
On Sunday morning, Max went to the hospital before dawn to deliver a baby. He was just returning in the early afternoon as I was leaving to take the boys to a carnival at the park. We had fun and stayed later than I had intended. When we returned home, I discovered that Max had cleaned the house, done the laundry, ironed his shirts for the coming week, and was cooking dinner. He had set the dining room table with a tablecloth, candles, and wine glasses. He greeted me with a boyish smile and a kiss. Then he scooped the boys up and tickled them.
We ate a delicious meal of chicken, rice, and broccoli. Afterward, Max insisted on doing the dishes. So I put my feet up and read an article about making positive change in public schools that had been given to me by the principal at Sammy’s school. Max gave the boys their bath and I tucked them into bed and read aloud to them.
I came downstairs and sat next to Max on the couch. “Thank you,” I said. “What a lovely evening.”
“It makes such a big difference?” he asked.
“The biggest difference in the world,” I affirmed. I wondered if he understood, or if he just wanted to make me happy and didn’t get why his help with the housework mattered to me. From that night on, Max made an effort to be more helpful and to share the burden of maintaining the household. Even so, he continued to annoy me with petty things that I tried not to mention. One moment I felt a rush of affection for him and the next moment utter exasperation at his insensitivity.
I certainly did not want any more children, and fortunately Max didn’t quarrel with that. The last thing I needed was to start from scratch with another baby. Although he was a difficult toddler, Joel outgrew his fits of temper and frustration. He worshiped his big brother and, despite the fact that more often than not he obstinately refused to obey others, he usually obeyed Sammy’s demands. Max joked that if Sammy told him to, Joel would fetch his brother’s slippers and newspaper.
In the fall, when he began first grade, Sammy started playing soccer. Max coached the soccer team and I coached Max in my role as the “Team Mom.”
I put Joel into a preschool for a year before he began kindergarten. We were both happy with this arrangement. He enjoyed playing with his little pals and boasting about what he did at “my school,” as he called it. I systematically researched the career possibilities open to me, changing my mind weekly, often daily, about what I wanted to do with my life. And then my career found me, appearing out of nowhere from an unexpected quarter.
Sammy was bosom buddies with a Dominican boy whose family had fled their homeland. Sammy and Salvador played at each other’s homes frequently, so I became well-acquainted with the family. One day Sammy announced that Salvador was moving back to the Dominican Republic. I immediately called Sofia, Salvador’s mother, who told me that her husband had been arrested by the Immigration and Naturalization Service (the INS). He stood a good chance of being deported, which, she informed me tearfully, could mean he would be tortured and killed. I had not known that the family was living in the United States illegally. Sofia and the children had not been detained, but the INS was aware of them. They were at risk of deportation as well.
Sofia hired an attorney named Alice, who specialized in immigration law. I had never heard of such a thing. I met Alice when I brought a casserole over to the family for dinner. I was immediately impressed with Alice’s straightforward and compassionate style of working with the family.
I tried to help Sofia by organizing the soccer moms to take turns bringing food to the family in the evenings while Raoul was in jail. It came as a rude awakening to me when most of the other moms refused to have anything to do with the family anymore, even though they knew Sofia and her children well from sitting on the sidelines with them, cheering together, at weekly soccer games.
I went to the house several nights a week and kept Sofia’s children occupied so that she could meet with Alice, who spoke with her in Spanish. One night, I asked Alice about the work that she did. A few weeks later, when Alice managed to obtain political asylum for the entire family, bringing Raoul home from jail, I was hooked. On the night of Raoul’s release I announced to Max that I wanted to go to law school.
Max slowly put his book down with a bemused expression. I wondered what he found so amusing about my aspirations. “What’s so funny?” I demanded.
“Of course something. What’s so funny?”
“I just don’t know whether to take you seriously. What happened to becoming a chef, a dress designer, a writer, a school teacher, a museum curator, an anthropologist, and a textiles importer? How am I supposed to know when you’ve made a real decision? Now you want to be an attorney. That’s fine. An attorney is fine.”
“I would appreciate a less condescending tone,” I told him. “I’m an adult.”
“You’re an adult who changes her mind frequently on this subject. That’s OK. There’s nothing wrong with changing your mind. I didn’t mean to insult you.” Max tried to soothe my ruffled feathers.
“I’m serious.” I folded my arms across my chest.
“I wish you had come with an instruction manual, Soph. Honestly.”
He infuriated me. Sometimes I blamed Max for the misdeeds of the whole male species even though I knew that wasn’t fair to him, but I couldn’t help myself. I resolved to not be so hard on him. “I’m going to look into law schools. You’ll see, this one is for real,” I assured him.
The following year, I really did start law school. I didn’t try to take a full course load. Instead I arranged to matriculate more slowly than my younger classmates. Even so, adjusting to the new demands on my time posed a challenge. Max and I arrived at a pivotal moment in our relationship on the Wednesday that he ducked out when I had my women’s group. At breakfast, Max announced that he would not be home for dinner because he had to attend a department meeting at the hospital.
“Tonight is my women’s group. The first Wednesday of the month. You know that. I expect you to watch the boys every first Wednesday,” I reminded him, as I struggled to refrain from raising my voice.
“I’m sorry. I have to go. It’s my job.”
“Well then go. But you need child care. Either find a babysitter or take the boys with you,” I insisted stubbornly.
“Take the boys with me?” he asked incredulously. “To a department meeting?”
“Then find a babysitter.”
“I don’t have time to call around for a babysitter, Soph. Today is surgery. I have two hysterectomies and a tubal ligation to perform.”
“The boys are your children too. Why do I have to ask you to watch the boys but you never have to ask me to watch them? You assume that I have them unless I make other arrangements. Stop assuming that if we’re both busy, I’m the one who has to find a babysitter. How is it that you are never, never responsible for finding child care? Tonight I don’t have them. You do. If you’re busy then you find someone to take care of them. You make the arrangements.”
“I told you. I’m in surgery today. I don’t have time to find a babysitter,” Max repeated, as if repetition would force understanding.
“You’re too busy yanking out women’s ovaries to find a babysitter for your own children.”
“Uterus. Just the uterus. We don’t remove the ovaries. Don’t be melodramatic. It’s a medical procedure, nothing personal.”
“Yank whatever you want to yank and make it as impersonal as you want to make it; but in between doing it, you find the time to arrange for a babysitter.”
Max assumed his most authoritative, paternalistic, doctorly voice. “Sophie, we’ll discuss this issue later. I’m sorry I disappointed you and I hope you can find a babysitter so you can go to your women’s group.” He turned cleanly on his heel and left for work.
Joel had appeared in the kitchen at the end of the argument. He stood crying in the doorway, his teddy bear dangling dejectedly from one little hand. I picked him up and set him on my lap and I cried with him in my frustration and anger.
When Max came home from his meeting that night, he found his bedroom door locked and the hide-a-bed in the guest room neatly made up for him. The next day he started running an ad in the newspaper for a live-in housekeeper and nanny. For once, he had a decent solution. “We are in the process of becoming a two-career household. We can afford this option for easing the burden on ourselves so let’s do it,” Max argued. “You need time to study in the evenings and I’m often on call. Someone has to care for the boys. With a live-in, you can schedule your time for study and your time for family and never worry about child care.”
I forgave him for that bad Wednesday night and let him back into the bedroom. I wondered how other women, who weren’t fortunate enough to be able to afford a live-in, managed. My heart went out to all the mothers, some of them who were on their own without a husband, who couldn’t afford extra help and who worked full-time at a job. I hired a contractor to make modifications to the basement to turn it into a cozy, private apartment. We advertised in the newspaper for two weeks, interviewed eighteen people, and fell in love with Joyce, a Haitian woman. Joyce would live in the guest room until her apartment was completed. Hiring Joyce made such a huge difference for us that I wondered why we hadn’t thought of it sooner.
Joyce elected not to share her full story with us. Something had happened that drove her from her homeland, something that kept her from starting a family of her own. Whatever it was, she didn’t want to talk about it. She was content to devote herself to our family. She adored our children and cared for them with abundant love and pride in all their accomplishments. The boys’ affection for her quickly grew. I reinforced their relationship with her because it bought my freedom.
One time Rina asked me if it bothered me to have a servant raise my children.
“She’s not a servant. She’s one of the family,” I explained patiently. “She lives with us as a member of the household. We provide her with room and board, the use of a car, and we pay her an excellent salary, much of which she is able to save.”
“She saves her salary because she has no one and nothing to spend it on. She has no life of her own,” Rina replied curtly.
“What gives you the right to judge us, or her?” I asked hotly. “Ask her yourself whether or not she likes living with us, whether or not she’s one of the family.” Rina let the conversation drop. It seemed transparent to me that Rina’s real problem was that Joyce was Black. It was Rina’s issue, not mine, and I refused to shoulder it.
Joyce was one of the greatest gifts that came to me in this life. She brought harmony and order into my home. She took a lot of the stress off my marriage because I got along better with Max when I had time to pursue my own interests. I made sure that I told her, often, how much I appreciated her efforts.
One night in the spring, I took a break from my studies and proceeded to clean out my top dresser drawer. I sorted through my underwear and stockings, discarding items I no longer wore. At the bottom of the drawer I came across the teddy that Rina had given to me when I was in college. I never wore it, but I could never quite get rid of it either. In the past, whenever I put it on, it transported me.
I tentatively slipped the teddy on and gazed at my reflection. Images poured into my consciousness. I was a Victorian lady sitting in a parlor, playing cards, wearing the teddy over a corset and under a peach-and-cream-colored dress with intricate lacework in the bodice. I wore a complicated hat and sat erect in a high-backed chair. Max came up behind me, glanced at my cards and placed a hand on my shoulder. He touched one of my cards with his finger. I didn’t agree with his choice, but I played the card anyway. In this image (or vision), I feared my husband Max so I obeyed him. I knew that he could hurt me, physically, and that he had done so in the past. I felt trapped and couldn’t breathe. I was confined in the corset, in the room, in the relationship with Max. In this trance-like state, a rush of understanding washed over me. Victorian-Sophie was married to a Victorian-Max who abused her, bullied her, restrained her from becoming the woman she could have been. In our present life together, we were working it out, finishing something started long ago. Trembling, I removed the teddy and placed it back in the bottom of my drawer. The images and the knowledge remained firm in my mind. Could I overcome this residual baggage and give Max a chance to get it right this time around? If I were to try to explain any of this to another living soul, they would have me committed. Except perhaps Rina; but we had not confided in one another about anything significant for a long time.
My Victorian memories would have to remain private. I began to secretly engage in the habit of sitting quietly and holding antique objects that I had collected, while inviting the images they brought into my mind; thus surfacing more and more of these former-life memories. One day, in a bookstore, I leafed through a book written by a psychic. She described how she would hold an object dear to the person who had come to her for a psychic reading. Then she closed her eyes and images drifted into her mind. Because she had been doing psychic readings for a long time, she knew how to interpret these images. For example, an engagement ring meant marriage in the future, or flags from various countries meant travel. The psychic’s description of how the images came to her resonated with me. These images worked metaphorically, by connection, and through relationship.
One night in bed, with trepidation, I attempted to broach the subject with Max. I said, “I know this sounds crazy, but sometimes I think I can remember a time when you and I were married in a previous life.”
Max misinterpreted my disclosure as an expression of my love for him. He patted my arm affectionately. “If I can have you for more than one lifetime, then I’m going to put in a request to have you in the next life too.”
“Well, actually, I think maybe something happened between us in a past life that affects us in this one.”
“Maybe I was Anthony and you were Cleopatra and we lived together in the ancient city of Atlantis.” Max laughed as he kissed his finger and touched it to the tip of my nose. I dropped the subject.
Another time, I tried to open the conversation again. I asked Max what he thought about reincarnation. “Don’t tell me you believe in that stuff,” he scoffed.
If I pursued a discussion of this topic, I would clearly be perching precariously on the rim of credibility as far as Max was concerned. My Victorian memories were so important to me and yet I couldn’t talk about them with him. I believed that I was remembering images and emotions from a former relationship between us that had a real and powerful impact on my present relationship with Max, yet his resistance to any discussion related to the topic of reincarnation or past-life memories prevented me from discussing any of it with him. Without being able to talk to Max about this, how could I possibly work through it with him?
I dealt with my frustrations stemming from Max’s close-mindedness by allowing myself to be distracted; and I had plenty to distract me. Subconsciously at first, but soon consciously, I began to squeeze Max out of my life. To my great disappointment, he didn’t seem to notice the changes occurring in our relationship. When we made love, I fantasized exciting situations and imaginary partners in order to become aroused. I went far away in my mind while he touched me. Max never suspected; although I wished he would. I wanted him to ask me what had changed. I wanted him to wake up and work with me to save our marriage.
My preoccupation with my own issues was interrupted abruptly when Papa had a heart attack. He had a heart murmur, for which he had been on medication his entire life. I had always known that he had a weak heart, but I had not admitted to myself that my parents were aging, and that Papa’s weak heart was bound to catch up with him as he got older. While Papa was in intensive care, the doctors, colleagues of Max’s (with special instructions from Max to give Papa the finest medical attention), discussed medications, treatments, and how to stabilize Papa’s health. They ran a series of tests and discovered he had diabetes. Papa returned home from the hospital weak, shaken, and disoriented. Mama put him on a restricted diet according to a plan drawn up by a nutritionist. He resigned from the board of directors at the temple and retired from the family business, although Uncle Izzie frequently called him to ask his opinion. He had always been so active and involved in the community that his sudden enforced retirement depressed him. He didn’t know what to do with himself. He was not the sort of person who could be idle for long. His image of himself as hale and hearty had been blasted to bits.
I brought the children to see him as often as possible because they cheered him more than anything else. Sarah had recently moved back to the East Coast from California and she took a week off work when Papa came home from the hospital so she could spend time with him. Rina and Arthur had gone to live in Africa for a year and I had an address for them but no phone number. I sent her a telegram. If there was ever a time for Rina and Papa to call off the dogs and reconcile their differences, this was it. Although Sarah disagreed. She was of the opinion that communicating with Rina again might give Papa another heart attack. I wondered how a father and daughter could so completely cut each other out of their lives. I couldn’t imagine keeping my sons apart from Papa; and I didn’t know what I would do when I finally lost him. I was scared.
Papa’s doctor reassured us. He said that Papa could live for many years to come on proper medication and by maintaining the recommended regimen of diet and exercise. But we could all see how dramatically he had changed after the heart attack. He seemed distracted and distanced. He sat still for long periods of time and I was not used to seeing him inactive.
The day before Joel’s ninth birthday, Papa and Mama came over for lunch. We made party favors and decorations. Papa blew up two dozen colorful balloons and played with the balloons with the boys. They batted them in the air and tried to keep them all aloft at once, crashing into each other in their efforts. I played the balloon game with them. Papa seemed more like his old self. He played Parcheesi with Sam and Joel while Mama and I assembled party favor bags and made clever table decorations.
The next day, an hour before Joel’s birthday party began, Papa was reading the Sunday paper when he nodded off on the couch. He had a second heart attack and died peacefully in his sleep. Sarah telephoned and told Max, who took me to our bedroom and broke the news to me as gently as possible. Looking back, I think I must have been irrational from the moment I found out. I decided I did not want to ruin Joel’s birthday party, so I kept the news from the boys and orchestrated party games, cut cake, scooped ice cream, and tended to the needs of eight little boys for two hours. I came apart at the seams when the children began to leave and Joel wanted to give away the balloons. The balloons had Papa’s breath inside them. I locked myself and the balloons in my bedroom. Max concluded the party, sent the guests home without balloons, and then explained to our boys that Grandpa had died. It was just as well that I had locked myself in the bedroom, because I was in no condition to cope with the wails of my children when they heard the news.
Alone in my bedroom, I unleashed my wrath in a diatribe against the doctors for not doing more, for not providing an effective medication, for not choosing to do bypass surgery, for not foreseeing the gravity of the situation and making a successful attempt to save Papa. I wanted to sue the hospital and Papa’s cardiologist. I made up what I would say in court. I raged and fumed, alternately kicking the balloons violently and then drawing them to me and hugging them tenderly.
Max could not coax me to open the door. Joyce sent him away and then, speaking soothingly, as if convincing a psychotic to hand over a gun, Joyce gained admittance and sat with me as I talked through my anger and grief. Then, together, we stored the balloons safely at the back of my walk-in closet (out of sight). Joyce drove me to my parents’ house.
During the funeral and the traditional Jewish week of mourning that followed, I leaned heavily on Max and he was completely there for me. I wandered in a fog of non-comprehension, unable to see or register the details that surrounded me. I held Papa’s spirit near and feared that if I allowed myself to return to the routines of my everyday life, my father’s presence would leave me completely. If not for Max’s sensitive patience, I might have had a complete breakdown.
Rina did not come home from Africa for the funeral. Even though I understood, rationally, that it was too far for her to come, too expensive, impractical, and that she would not have even made it in time for the funeral (which was held within forty-eight hours of Papa’s death in accordance with Jewish law); I was angry with her anyway for not being present for Mama and for me during that difficult time. I desperately wanted the family to be together; but we weren’t, we hadn’t been for a long time, and now we would never be together again. In the weeks following Papa’s passing, I spent hours walking around our neighborhood. I ran memories of Papa through my mind while I walked. I thought that if I could hold him in my memory accurately, then he wouldn’t really be gone. Joyce cared for the boys while I was thus preoccupied. She was the one who helped them handle their own loss and grief. Max was worried about all of us. Joyce kept reminding Max of the adage that time heals all wounds.
Finally, there came an evening when I sent Joyce out of the kitchen and cooked dinner myself. I prepared some of Papa’s favorite foods. I set the fancy table in the dining room. Max, Joyce, the boys, and I ate there together. Sam and Joel regaled us with stories from their experiences at school. The dinner was a turning point for me. After that evening, I slowly began to recover. I agreed to take the seat on the board of directors at the temple that Papa had vacated after his first heart attack. As I emerged from the fog of my own grief, I turned my attention to Mama, who had withdrawn into an alarming state of shock. Sarah moved in with Mama temporarily. Sarah and I grew closer through our efforts to help Mama make the adjustment to the loss of Papa as she reshaped her image of her own future. Papa’s presence and his impact remained with us. Among other things, we saw his footprint daily in the actions and accomplishments of his grandsons.
After Papa’s death, I made dramatic changes in my lifestyle. I quit taking the Pill and bought a diaphragm. I consulted with a nutritionist and adopted an entirely new approach to food. I insisted that the boys and Max drink low-fat milk and I banned red meat from the kitchen. I read the labels on everything and rejected high-salt and high-fat items that I had bought regularly in the past. I pushed fruits and vegetables on the family with a vengeance. I joined a health club, where I worked out religiously three days a week. I lost weight, trimmed down, put on some muscle, and got in shape.
Max had cared for me when I was emotionally fragile, and I appreciated his efforts. I don’t think I would have completed law school after the loss of Papa if not for Max’s meticulous care. But as I recovered from my loss, his coddling and fawning irritated me. As hard as Max worked at rebuilding the intimacy we had once shared, I worked at maintaining just the right level of distance to keep both my marriage and my privacy intact. This cat-and-mouse game continued as I studied for the Bar Exam, which I passed on my first try. We officially became a two-career household when I landed a job with a small progressive law firm that, among other things, practiced immigration law.
From the outside, I suppose we looked like the perfect couple. The doctor and the lawyer with our two beautiful, bright boys. We owned a lovely house maintained by our Haitian live-in. We were pillars of the Jewish community. Many years later, when they were grown up, Sam and Joel referred to the part of their childhood when I attended law school as The Ice Age. They could feel the coldness between their parents, even though Max was oblivious to it. They relied on Joyce’s verve to warm them.
In the spring of my first year as a practicing lawyer, Max was invited to deliver a paper at an obstetrics conference in Chicago. He asked me to go with him, but I made one excuse after another. So he went alone. As soon as Max left, on a Sunday morning, I cleaned the house from top to bottom. Joyce and I even cleaned the back of the closets, the garage, and the laundry room. During the week that Max was gone, I made sure not to stay late at the office so that I could make it home in time to eat dinner with Joyce and the boys. Sam and Joel were in the midst of a Monopoly jag, so after dinner and homework, we sat down to an ongoing game that we had spread out on a card table in the living room. I put jazz on the stereo and traded in houses and hotels with my charming sons. Max usually called to say goodnight to the boys before they went to bed.
The night before Max was due to return, I reflected back over the week without him. I had been happier than I had felt in years. It was certainly not the sort of elation I had felt as a young newlywed and it was not that exhausted sense of blessed happiness I had experienced when the boys were little. This was a more steady and comfortable happiness, a deep happiness that came from within and did not depend on anyone else. I didn’t want Max to come back and shatter it. I missed having him there for the boys; but I liked having him at a distance.
I no longer wanted or needed a husband.
I can’t remember asking for a divorce. We didn’t file for divorce, in fact, until many years later, when Max wanted to remarry. He never understood what went wrong, although he recognized that it had gone wrong. Perhaps he wasn’t as oblivious as I had thought all that time, perhaps he just didn’t want to accept what was happening to us. For my part, I couldn’t explain to him my perspective without discussing the relationship I had with him in a previous life as his abused Victorian wife. It was a key conversation that we would never have because he dismissed this very real part of my life as make-believe. And there was the heart of the whole disaster. If he had opened his scientific mind to the possibility of my visions and recollections, we might have had a chance at mending whatever had torn asunder in that former lifetime, and in the present one. Even if my Victorian memories were nothing more than a figment of my imagination, they were real to me, they were part of my perception, my framework of reality. And what we perceive is what is real to us. We create our own reality. Max could not erase my reality just by insisting that it did not exist.
After Max moved out of the house, I went through my clothing to cull out the old-style things. I wanted to get rid of my outmoded PTA-mom clothes. I came across that teddy. I sat in a chair, closed my eyes, and threaded the silky undergarment through my fingers, I allowed the teddy to control my thoughts in the way that I had learned to extract potent images from objects.
I saw myself in that same white-lace-curtained, dark-wood parlor that had so often appeared in my memory. I sat at the card table, my corset too tight and my brain addled and dizzy. The Victorian-Max glided up behind me and placed his hand on my shoulder, as if restraining me in that position and in that place. But, to his apparent astonishment, I rose and walked out of the room. I removed the corset, took the pins out of my hair, and changed into a loose skirt and blouse. Then I ran into a field of wildflowers and tall grasses where a breeze blew, a breeze of fresh, crisp air that smelled like line-dried sheets or the hair of a small child who has been playing outdoors.
“I’m free,” I said, as I opened my eyes. I had reconciled myself with my past.
I put the teddy in a bag with other discarded items and gave the bag to Joyce, telling her to keep anything she wanted and to dispose of the remainder. Not long afterward, I was amused to notice a small pillow that Joyce had made. She had cut the lace edging off the teddy and used it to trim the pillow.