Book I Excerpt: The Lindser Tart
My mother dresses me in overalls, a T-shirt, unembellished business socks, no ruffles, and polished oxfords; my Mary Janes and ruffled socks are not for school, just for special occasions. I watch her tug on her undergarment, and wonder anew at its purpose, Mommy’s naked body is neatly put together, and not unpleasant, familiar and comforting to gaze at. I run my hands down my own slight frame as I watch transfixed. It is not all that different from mine, except for a few bulges that I do not possess, nor wish to. She deftly drops a simple rayon slip over her head, and I stare, fascinated as it floats into place as if it knows the way. Next, a cream colored blouse with slight delicate floral embroidery across the chest, and a collar that is strangely long, looking remotely like floppy rabbit ears hanging there, until it turns into a bow under my mother’s deft touch.
Nylon stockings, carefully applied because I am told, of the war, and high heeled pumps, the ones I step gingerly into on evenings and weekends, when I am permitted to play dress-up with my mother’s things, when I lose myself in the aroma of my mother, in her clothing; the war, again. Strangely enough, she keeps these stockings in the tiny freezer part of the refrigerator, at the top, having been told that this keeps them from getting those sudden and devastating ladders, crawling up, or down, slowly and fatefully leaving their nasty track that renders them useless. They should be called tracks, I muse, not ladders. I have watched fascinated, holding my breath, as they inch along on their magical journey to nowhere. Stockings are difficult to obtain now, another of those wartime rationed commodities.
Last, the neatly fitting tailored suit jacket. She finishes with the proverbial paisley or flower-patterned silk scarf, deftly wound and curled and tied, and pinned to her suit collar with the usual bejeweled pin, part of a set, e pluribus unim that sports earrings and necklace. Sapphire to match her eyes, gold to echo her hair, pearls to complement her porcelain skin. Now, a touch of lipstick, and a bit of scent, and the metamorphosis is complete. I stare up at her in awe, breathing in the exotic aroma so that I can remember it until I see her again. That familiar feeling of approaching abandonment is creeping into my chest, in direct proportion to her degree of readiness. Soon, I will be devastatingly alone, again. It must be because of the war, I think. I have to work, you see, because Daddy is away, because of the war. The only thing I know of war is that everyone talks about it continually, Daddy is missing, and Mommy is unhappy. Otherwise, I have no idea of what this thing is, this miasma that envelops all of our lives with its ineffable sense of gloom and terror.
All at once her demeanor changes; she has donned her day persona, pulled out of the air, from the secrets of the murky closet or the unyielding chest of drawers. She is suddenly an elegant woman of the world, esteemed teacher, and she is off to her own wars, off to teach her hoards of to me faceless students who take her from me each day. She has put on her workday self, along with her outfit. I feel my stomach sinking, my eyes tear. I hastily wipe at them, and swallow to get control. It seems for some reason to be imperative that I do not allow her to see my discomfort, know my feelings. The elegance is her cover, her superficial coating of a confidence I can sense she does not feel. She glances at herself in the big round mirror above the mahogany art deco dresser in the bedroom, turning and preening, and she whispers, I wish Daddy could see me. I see you, I whisper back invisibly, but she is already walking toward the door, her huge handbag over her shoulder, her bulging briefcase under her arm. I follow obediently, grabbing onto the corner of her jacket.
A faint memory of Daddy flits across my mind, and then it is gone.
At first, I can’t quite recall it all, but it presses at my consciousness, an instant replay; a little blurry. The scene has repeated again and again until it is indelibly etched onto my brain. I have seen it frequently over the years, and never know when once again unsummoned and unwanted, it will appear once again.
There I am in my new Red Riding Hood raincoat that gives me delicious shivers as I think about Grandma and that wolf and I somehow summon up vague simultaneous thoughts of terror and goodies which survive in a confusing non sequitur of hovering memories. My mother’s enthusiasm leads me to believe that it is undoubtedly a possession to be cherished. Just like the one in the story.
From that day to the present, try as I may, I cannot recall the rest of the apartment on Holland Avenue in the Bronx where we lived for my first year. Neither can I recall any part of our time there; except for the repetitious iron bars of the fire escape, its pattern and cadences appearing as I look from the window. I am, of course, only one year old. I remembered quite clearly, however, my mother lifting me up and unaccustomedly holding me very tightly, so that I know something is different, maybe even amiss, and carrying me to the window. The sash is raised and we look out on the fire escape, the orange and rust and black iron slats and ladders rising endlessly out of and beneath each other. Beyond them, three stories below, the ancient concrete sidewalk slopes steeply away from us. On that sidewalk, sparkling and dapper in his crisp newly issued army uniform, his narrow sculpted Errol Flynn mustache lifting quixotically to one side over that familiar rakish grin, his captain’s cap doffed cavalierly in mock salute, his overcoat casually over his arm stands my father. He blows a kiss, waves, turns on his heel, and jauntily strides down the hill and out of our lives for five long years. The little I am able to recall of Holland Avenue is a faint image of the streets lined with stores of all kinds, walking up and down the cracked paved concrete hills with my mother, the stone walls, paths and hills and trees of Bronx Park West across the street, and the clatter of the elevated trains.
But now a few short years later my mother on her way to work drops me off to be cared for this day after an obnoxious bus ride across the Bronx and rushes off. Hansel and Gretel Nursery School, says the whitewashed wood plank sign propped up in front of the sparse yard, littered with toys. It has dark blue trim, and a rudimentary painted image of a boy and a girl holding hands. I have barely recovered from the noxious fumes of the traffic, and the pungent crush of strange bodies, when I am made to sit at a long low table on miniature chair, like and so unlike the one at home where I play with my dolls, and forced to eat icy cold runny soft-boiled eggs and congealed cream of wheat, although my stomach rebels, and my internal core is reduced to stone. There is a war on. Think of all the poor starving children in Europe.
Then, according to regimen, all of the other parentless-for-the-day children sit on small potties, placed randomly around the classroom, pants and panties around our ankles, until we perform. This is our morning activity. Those who do not, are left to contemplate their failures, until they persevere. It is a great time to exercise the imagination, disappearing into other more interesting inner worlds of the mind. Our caretakers are away in their usual covert place somewhere else, but I can see them past the half open doorway of the adjoining kitchen, clutching coffee cups and pastries, conversing and laughing, a world removed from their charges, who obediently follow a rigid and controlled schedule with very little care involved, waiting for the day to pass. It passes very slowly. Finally, they feign great critical sighs for our inadequacy, and we are released from this particular activity, stiff from the lengthy time in that forced position, red circles engraved by pressure on our collective bottoms.
Later, our clothing resettled in its proper position and recovering quickly as children do, at least on the surface, we all wander out to play on the grounds, where most of the other children obediently swing or slide. I am the renegade, subservient to my imagination, disinterested in mindless play, finding assorted treasures in the dirt, in the sparse brown grass, buttons and pieces of rotted wood, bottle caps, shiny, flaking mica rocks, and a sort of Bronx beach glass, really weathered broken bottle shards, dreaming up new scenarios and art forms from sand and stick and stone. Whatever are you doing? Stop that immediately, wash your hands, find a toy, and join the other children. Nice little girls don’t do that. Let me push you on the swings. No, no, just the thought of swings makes me queasy.
Be good, now, I am warned; whatever is wrong with you? Why can’t you play nicely like all the other children? What is this pressure, this necessity to be like everyone else?
Sometimes they do force me to swing, and I endure this torture, which culminates usually in what little breakfast I have consumed being left on the playground floor, behind a bush, or in a sand bucket, if they have been fast enough. They never learn, they are determined to convert me to a happy swinger. They are determined to force me to conform to their particular image of child. Then the afternoon activity, more a respite for supposedly hardworking teachers than something of value for already bored children, a compulsive mass nap on folding army cots with scratchy wool blankets, sleepy or not, the lights dimmed and the window shades lowered so that only the tips of the trees are visible in the yard, and finally Mommy arrives, worn and cranky after her long day of teaching and dealing with routine technical nonsense, to take me home. When she sees me, her face softens, and a wide smile appears.
We walk slowly, hand in hand, to the bus stop. Her hand is soft and cool and pliant, as always; the feel of it is engraved on my memory, I can feel its touch whenever I am sad or ill. Her hand is love, security, and I cherish its brief tenure attached to mine. Warmth infuses my body just to be near her. Already the day has faded to a faint gray receding blur. I wish to cling to her, to never have to let go, but I know that is not going to happen. Did you have a nice day, she asks sweetly, her voice filled with love, and I nod yes, because I don’t know what else to say that will not create more havoc than I am ready to deal with. My eyes give me away, huge and dark and sad. She tries not to notice, cannot face discord, dismay, in her barely tolerable, tightly controlled existence. The lines from the corners of my mouth to my chin are getting deeper; I look like a marionette, I think, when I look at myself in the bus window, the world darkening behind it as we pass under the elevated train structure. I open and close my mouth a few times experimentally, noticing that yes, strangely enough, I am turning, the opposite of Pinocchio, into a puppet. No, I think gravely. I will never let that happen. I know Pinocchio very well, since my mother takes me to see each and every child’s movie and show that graces the theater. I am on first name basis with Dumbo, Babaar, Snow White, and Cinderella, and an assortment of adult musicals; The Secret Garden, The Little Princess, and Pollyanna, Anchors Aweigh. Meet me in St Louis, Louis, I sing inside my head, meet me at the fair, I sing silently, remembering. I will never forget how Dumbo lost his mother, and Babaar, and there is Madeleine, the French orphan who lives with nuns in an orphanage, twelve little girls in two straight lines, which all fill me with terror. Mom was forced to leave me in the care of the nuns at the church on our corner a couple of times when the baby sitter didn’t show and she had to leave for work. I am quite certain that I don’t want to be sent to an orphanage and be cared for by nuns.
On the last Friday of the month, I know the routine. I guard my secret knowledge tightly, allowing only the slightest suggestion of a gleeful grin to sneak across my face, which is otherwise engraved with that eternal image of sadness. I am constantly asked with grave concern, even by strangers, what is the matter, dear? We exit the rocking bus, and begin our voyage now on foot down the cracked cement hilly sidewalk. After a brief stop at Manufacturer’s Trust Bank on the corner, we continue our walk, past Safeway and the dry cleaners, the Chinese laundry, Cristedes and Rexall, Mommy waving gaily at those proprietors who are nearly family, who have managed to steal a moment in a tedious and hectic existence for a breath of fresh air, this late winter afternoon, which sports a hint of Spring merged with the smell of melting snow mixed with traffic fumes. The somber stentorious disembodied voice of a newscaster relating the news can be heard continually spewing out the serious word of the day. The United States government has interned a million Japanese evacuated from miles and miles on the coast, I hear, what does that all mean? Everyone has a radio on; radios are never turned off. Everyone listens, continually, to the solemn deep serious voices that give the blow by blow recount of the affairs of the world in these difficult and dangerous times, one ear cocked at all times. Life is precarious, these days, and the future unknowable. A bit of information filtered through the screams of distance and secrecy is a treasure.
Whistle while you work, I sing loudly, off key as I skip down the sidewalk, Hitler is a jerk. Mussolini is a meanie and the Japs are worse. This is the verse that is going around my school, a variation on the ditty sung by the seven dwarfs of Snow White. I wish to drown out the deep serious voices and their mournful rant of doom and gloom. My mother winces and I have no idea why. It is obviously a secret, another secret. Mom has a lot of these secrets.
The immense filthy flatulent bus expels a huge noisy black puff of noxious exhaust, and glances exchanged, a titter ripples across the pedestrians and shopkeepers who are united in wartime angst, a welcome respite from tension, stress, and tightly contained days. The bus continues on its way, rumbling and snorting. I continue skipping down the hill. I am now singing my daddy’s song, in a rasping deep throated imitation baritone. From the halls of Mont-e-zu-u-ma to the shores of Tri-po-li … the words roll senselessly from my mouth like a fountain of multicolored jellybeans … we will fight our country’s ba-at-tles, on the land and on the sea … My new mantra, louder and louder, becoming more and more distorted as the meaningless words are repeated mindlessly, breathlessly, over and over again, jolting, bouncing with each breath as I go ahead skipping with abandon as we nearly reach the corner. Don’t fall, be careful, sternly reprimands my mother, but she is smiling, thinking of other things. I believe that she is thinking that she is glad that he sent another record.
We follow the delightful fumes of pastry, which have at first blended with and then overwhelmed that of the bus exhaust as we have reached the corner, and enter the corner store, and Mommy is counting out her ration coupons, butter, eggs, milk, sugar, smiling happily. We are in Handscomb’s Bakery, and the heady combined aromas of baking, bread and cake and pastry, overwhelm the senses. Always for me this smell is associated with the feeling of love. My mother hands over her bounty of coupons and a small amount of money, retrieved from what is left after she has deposited her precious paycheck in the bank, and I receive my token of love, a Lindser tart. Sometimes, only rarely, she buys two. That’s how much she loves me. A Lindser tart, a concoction of raspberry jam between two giant circles of shortbread, a smaller circle cut out of the top one exposing the raspberry, the entire thing coated with powdered sugar, is a symbol that becomes engraved on my DNA, enmeshed in my atavistic memory for future generations, proof of love.
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