Mr. Faraway asks a question, and here is the answer: It’s a long story.
At the very, very beginning, my parents met. My Mother was 30 years old, one of four daughters of a not-well-off, unhappily married small-town Wisconsin couple. My Father was 22 years old, the only son of a not-well-off, unhappily married Jewish couple, who emigrated to South Africa from Latvia just ahead of the Holocaust that swept away the families they left behind.
They met on a kibbutz in Israel, where I was conceived, and then went to New York City, where I was born.
We were not well off, either, and the part of the marriage where we all lived together did not last long: By the time I was a year old, there were no more photographs of my father. By the age of 18 months, there are photos of me in Wisconsin, on my grandparents’ porch. There are a few photos of me in New York, and then they stop, and we are in Wisconsin again, at my grandparents’ house. I’m pretty sure we occupied the upstairs bedroom, though I have some memories of sleeping on a pull-out sofa. There were lots of cousins and aunts, and a dog that I played with, a miniature schnauzer with floppy, uncut ears.
There was a kitten, too, about whom I remember one thing: I decided to take her outside to get some air one day, and she got loose and climbed up a tree. I was told she ran away, and that may be true, but in any case I never saw her again.
I was three or four, and Christmas was coming. Cards were sent, and received. I liked the way mail came then, with a mailman walking through the Wisconsin snow, house to house, dropping cards into a slot where they landed, in a pile, in the front hall closet. I could hear the thump and watch the mailman and often was the first to get the mail.
A card came from my great-Aunt’s house. I tore open the envelope and was confused, because she had sent us the same card we sent her. When I showed the card to my grandmother, I got a reprimand for tearing open the envelope, which could have been re-used: the card we sent had been returned to us, with the address written slightly wrong.
Another card came back, too, but someone else got the mail that day, so all I saw was a bit of the card as I peered over a shoulder during the confused discussion that followed: The card to my father had been returned, addressee moved, no forwarding address.
Years later, I would find the divorce papers that my mother filed the following year, her versus him, address unknown.
One of the interesting aspects of my childhood was the gifts that showed up for me. Other children, it seemed to me, received things I saw on TV: Barbie dolls and Hot Wheels racing sets. I got a little bit of that – not Barbie dolls, which my mother was opposed to on some sort of political correctness basis – but other things like a Big Wheel, various plastic dolls, and games like Tiddlywinks and Hi-Ho Cherry-O. I don’t remember the things so much as the stories that were invented around them; one of my dolls had her arm chewed off by the dog, an event I don’t recall, but she was ever after the doll victim of many shark-attack scenarios devised by my cousin, which I remember well.
My grandmother’s seemingly endless siblings presented me with a number of treasures, mostly, I suspect, handed down from their own grandchildren, but all of them “still with lots of good use left.”
More exotic items arrived at the house for me, though, from all over the world, and these were presented to me always with a bit of awe and an effort to impress on me what a wonderment such things were. Jewelry from my grandparents and aunt in South Africa. Marvelous toys from my godfather, a Swiss banker.
The Swiss Banker sent an expensive set of plasticine clay to me one Wisconsin Christmas, exquisitely beautiful in the packaging, but I wanted to play with it – it was clay, after all – so I sat at the kitchen table and tried to make things with my four-year-old fingers, I don’t remember what. I liked the feel of the clay and all the different colors.
I showed my mother what I had made, and she told me I wasn’t doing it right. That’s not how you use clay like that.
I had been happy with what I had made and how I had spent the afternoon, but now I was not so sure. I went upstairs, and later, to bed, but I peeked downstairs that night, because my mother was not upstairs, asleep with me. She was at the table, modeling with my clay. In the morning, there was an array of zoo animals – I remember a tiger with carefully applied stripes in particular – on display on the kitchen table. I stared at her perfect figures made from my clay, things I could never hope to make. That is what you do with clay like that, she said.
I determined to try, and sat at the table that day, pulling apart what bits remained of the clay and trying to copy the little animals she made, or make some of my own devising. They didn’t look like hers, and after a while, I realized I didn’t want them to. I mashed up all my failed attempts into a ball and then mashed that together with what remained of the clay and by then there was an ocean of grey clay and her animals were the creatures that missed Noah’s Ark and got eaten by the flood and turned into grey clay too.
I made little balls out of the grey clay, which is what my mother saw when she found the whole mess.
She was angry at me for ruining that beautiful, expensive clay set, which seemed logical enough, and I was angry at her too, though I couldn’t explain why.
When was three or so, I owned a doll named Becky and another, smaller doll, who was Becky’s friend and whose name I don’t remember. I don’t really remember Becky much, either, except that I think she had curly dark hair, and a red dress.
One day, I came downstairs, and Becky and her friend were on the kitchen table, in a plastic bag. I asked my mother, Why.
She said, I’m donating them to children who don’t have any toys.
But I don’t want to give Becky away. I want to keep her.
No you don’t, said my mother. You’re done with her.
Her tone was final: the decision was made. So I stared at Becky in the plastic bag, missing her before she was gone, hoping those other children would love her, fearing they would just throw her away.
The first time I saw a movie in a theater, I was terrified. I wailed loudly, so my mother left the theater with me halfway through the film. All I remember about Pinocchio is standing on a small-town sidewalk while my mother shouted that movies cost money to see, and were nothing to be afraid of.
Shouting fills the spaces of those years at my grandparents’ house, and also my aunt’s house, where we lived for a short time. I ran a staple through a four-year-old finger, and there was shouting because I wasn’t supposed to be using the stapler. We headed out for a walk downtown, and I fussed about the long walk and wanted my stroller, and there was shouting about being too big for it, though I had just been walked in it a few days before and wasn’t too big then. When I could not ride my bike without training wheels, I stood in my aunt’s gravel driveway, blinking at my mother as she shouted from beneath the weeping willow I had helped her plant there.
My grandmother and my mother shouted at each other. Mostly, I stayed out of that, although once I heard my mother shouting, Oh, Mother! at my grandmother, and that was wrong, because she was Grandma, not Mother. I interrupted and was told to shut up, but I didn’t. One of them was Mother and that was my mother, not Grandma, who was my grandma. That one time, I shouted too, until they finally gave up whatever that day’s argument was about.
There were quiet places, too: my Grandfather knew where they were. The park near our house was quiet, and he and I would walk there together with the Schnauzer. His bedroom, separate from my grandmother’s, was quiet, and private, and sparse, housing only what mattered to him. He had a reel-to-reel tape player, and in the evenings, he would play The Carpenters and I was allowed to listen, too. The living room was often noisy, but quiet when Lawrence Welk was on, and my Grandfather would sit with me on the gold velvet davenport while I watched the ladies singing with bubbles floating around them and wished I could be one of them someday.
Once, we sat in his room, and he showed me how to pare an apple with his sharp pocketknife. He let me touch the knife so I could feel how sharp it was, and then explained how to cut away the seeds and core, so that I would know what to do someday when I was old enough to pare an apple, too.
I started kindergarten, and it was mostly fun, though parts of it made me nervous. Sometimes the teacher would show our work to the class and we’d talk about ways it could be better; I felt like I had done something wrong when she showed my not-quite-egg-shaped Easter Egg, and hoped I wasn’t in trouble as she trimmed the rough edges.
Once we had a pottery lesson. After we shaped our bowls, we were told which tables had which colors of glaze on them and then asked to say which table we wanted to move to for glazing. I couldn’t remember which tables had which colors, even though everyone else seemed to know where they wanted to go, so I said I wanted to stay at the table I was already at, and hoped I had chosen red. I was disappointed to receive a green bowl when the firing was finished.
Show and tell was once a week, and it had a theme to it: bring something green, or maybe square. On the day we were supposed to bring something orange, my mother gave me an orange kitchen sponge. I didn’t want to bring it.
She said, It’s orange. That’s your show and tell.
I cried. She shouted. The neighbor girl who walked me to school waited outside the screen door.
Finally, she demanded, Well, what orange thing do you want to bring?
I don’t know.
I tripped on the way to school and scraped my knee so that it bled on the sponge. The teacher tried to comfort me, but I still had to stand up in front of the class for show and tell. I didn’t talk for long – there isn’t much to say about a sponge, especially when you have a skinned knee and one of the other girls just showed her orange See and Say.
I didn’t finish kindergarten; I just stopped going one day. My mother and I were going on a trip to meet my other grandparents, in South Africa. We flew to London first, and stayed for several days with friends of my mother’s, who had two young daughters. I hoped I would get to meet the Queen, and my mother said we might see her, so we three girls practiced curtseying so deep we fell down. In the end, we drove by Buckingham Palace, then played in a park, and then I got on another plane.
In Johannesburg, we stayed with my Aunt, the sister of the father I knew only from snapshots. Her house was at the end of a road at the top of a hill, built into the side of the mountain: the garage was on the top floor, so you drove in from the top, then walked downstairs. The house was immense, and sunny, because all the sides were glass and it was sunny there all the time, even though it was winter. The floors were black, hard, and shiny, and I loved them, because my Johannesburg Aunt bought me a pair of fashionable bright red clogs that made a racket clacking against those floors.
I shared a room with my girl cousin, and we were treated like twins, because we were almost the same age. My South African family showered me with gifts, and when I got a gift, she got one, too: necklaces with our names in gold letters. I got my first Barbie doll from my cousin, an English version of Barbie called Cissy, who was tall and blonde and no longer wanted by my cousin.
In the mornings, we all ate breakfast in a vast sunny kitchen, in a large round breakfast nook, which was not the table where we ate other meals, but no matter which table we ate at, dark-skinned servants brought the meal and cleaned up after us. Everyone was nice to me, and I liked them, and once visited one of the servant women in her room, which was smaller than my Twin Cousin’s and seemed to be the only room in that house without a big window. She didn’t seem to be bothered by me bouncing on her bed and asking her questions, and my cousins joined me there, bouncing on the bed, until finally my Aunt found us all and sent us off to play somewhere else.
My Wisconsin grandparents’ house was nothing like my Johannesburg Aunt’s house, but my South African grandparents’ house was: Small, and with a kitchen table where meals were both made and eaten.
The reason we went to South Africa, I was told, was to meet my Grandfather: He had cancer and wanted to meet the child of his lost son. We seemed to spend much more time doing things with my cousins and Aunt, but then again, they were much more able to do things. This Grandfather was frail, and had large hearing aids, because he was nearly deaf.
He could still sing though, and although he only sang me one song, he knew every word of it and sang it to the end, every time: Oh, Susannah.
My Twin Cousin and I would stand on the other side of the kitchen and whisper so he couldn’t hear, but he knew what we were saying and chimed in anyway. He told me secretly that he knew what we were saying because he could read lips. I thought it was a wonderful trick.
This grandparents’ house had a tree in the yard, with low but sturdy branches. It was the first tree that ever let me climb it.
My mother and I stayed in South Africa for six weeks. We visited Kruger Park and a rhinoceros preserve; my mother went to Capetown with my grandmother.
But it could not be vacation all of the time: my cousins had to go to school, and one day, I was sent with my Twin Cousin. She attended a private school, and an extra uniform was found for me to wear. My Twin Cousin wore a lightweight, white sweater with her skirt, as she was supposed to, but she only had one white sweater, so there wasn’t one for me. I only had the sweater I had brought: heavy, electric green, with big buttons up the front.
It’s a sweater, said my mother. It will do.
It was all wrong, and I didn’t want to wear it. I was supposed to wear was something white and soft, like my cousin.
My Aunt agreed: We’ll buy her another sweater.
My mother said, No you won’t, but my Aunt gave me a look that said, tomorrow will be different, just wear the green sweater once. We had to leave for school, so I did as I was told, but was afraid to get out of the car when I got to the school, the only girl in a green sweater. My Aunt and my mother spoke to the teacher, and I heard my mother laughing.
Class started, and I sat next to my cousin, sharing her desk and hoping I would do nothing else wrong. The teacher wrote a word on the blackboard, MOON, and then erased it, and we were supposed to remember the word and write it down on a piece of paper. As soon as she erased it, I couldn’t remember what I was supposed to do anymore and then my cousin was saying, don’t cry, don’t cry, it’s okay.
I spent most of the day coloring, and it was pleasant, but I didn’t go back.
I spent the rest of my South Africa visit playing with one of my other cousins: My Twin Cousin had an Older Brother and a Younger Brother. The Younger Brother was the one I played with, because he was home, and he was close enough to my age that we could find fun things to do.
The Older Brother didn’t really hang out with us, being old enough that our games were no longer interesting to him. He was older, and very smart, and seemed very mature to me.
The playroom next to the children’s bedrooms was mostly taken up by one thing, a model train set that belonged to the Older Brother, and only to him. It was very large, and sat on a special table so that everything was the right height. The tracks went every which way, taking the train past perfect miniature trees and houses and villages. I would have wished for a dollhouse as detailed and precise as his train set, if I could have imagined such a thing and then imagined not being afraid to play with it.
But he wasn’t afraid to play with it, and one day he showed me how the whole thing worked, how he could make the train go from one track to another, or anywhere he wanted it to, by flipping a switch. It all belonged to him, but he was happy to let me watch, and he was very pleasant company while I did.