I never want us to turn out like me and my mother.
That’s what she used to tell me, all throughout my childhood: “Jan, no matter what happens, I just don’t want us to turn out like me and my mother. I couldn’t stand my mother, she was nothing but a burden to me, and I never want you to feel that way about me.”
“I know,” I’d say, twelve and wise. “We won’t.” And truly, I didn’t see how that could ever happen. My mother was beautiful, brilliant, funny and fun, whereas my grandmother was a neurotic, nagging old shrew. Grandma wasn’t even my mother’s real mom – she had adopted my mother as a newborn, knocking ten years off her age on the adoption application so nobody would know she was fifty. My mother’s real mother, her birth mother, was rumored to be an Italian teenager; this explained my mother’s fine, thin nose, her high forehead, her caramel skin. My short, dumpy, Jewish grandmother was no true relation of ours.
I may not have known this for a fact, when I was five and we went to live with Grandma after my mother left my dad, but I picked up on it pretty quickly. My mother was dismissive and impatient with her mother, never wanted to spend time in the apartment, argued with her constantly and bitterly – “Don’t tell her that,” she snapped, after Grandma told me that her husband Morris had gone to God’s house for a visit. “That’s superstitious horseshit. Janice, Grandpa is dead.”
And here I’d been wondering when Grandpa was coming home from God’s house, and what he’d tell us about it when he got back. I imagined that God’s furniture was huge, that Grandpa’s legs splayed off the edge of the chair the way mine did when I went next door at my grandmother’s behest to visit elderly Mrs. Hymowitz, who had no grandchildren of her own. But no, my grandfather was dead, and nobody seemed to mourn him – not his henpecking wife, not his bitter adoptive daughter, and not me, the five-year-old grandchild who barely remembered the man in the black-and-white picture on the wall, the man with the vacant smile and the one crossed eye.
We lived with Grandma for six months, during which my mother was never home if she could help it. I slept in the spare bedroom, which had once been hers, though you wouldn't know a child had lived there – now it was all shelves of sour-smelling Reader’s Digest condensed books, rows of glass mason jars full of sewing notions. A snowglobe that I turned constantly, feeling the cold of the winter scene in my hot hands, which left disappearing handprints of mist on the surface. My grandmother and I watched Lawrence Welk together, and World of Disney, while I colored in the color-by-numbers from the newspaper with waxy crayons on the carpet. “Careful of the rug, dear; don’t rub so hard with the crayon.”
I had nothing against my grandmother, but my mom did, and that was enough for me. When we moved out – first to a sublet in a housing project on the Upper West Side, then to New Jersey, where my mother married her third husband, Irv, then back to the city after her third divorce – our goal became to visit Grandma in the Bronx as little as possible. She’d call, and my mother would roll her eyes, shake her head, do a full-on St. Vitus Dance of pantomimed frustration at which I’d smirk, sympathetic.
“Mom,” she’d say, “what do you want from me. I’m busy! Well, I know you want to see her, but I can’t drag her all the way up there after work in the evenings. You know perfectly well, she spends weekends with her father. What do you want me to do? Well, I’m sorry I don’t call more, I’m busy. We’re fine, Mom. Yes! Everything’s fine! Jesus!” Sometimes I’d be drafted into a short conversation, my mother putting her hand over the mouthpiece as she passed me the phone, hissing, “Don’t tell her we’re coming to see her. Don’t let her make you make any promises.”
And then that voice, half whine, half croak. “Janice, dalling, how are you? I miss you so much. Why won’t your mother let you come visit? We could go to the park, or to the museum. Wouldn’t you like to go to the museum with your Grandma? I don’t know how long I’m going to be around, Janice…”
My mother would jerk the phone back from me. “Mom, I told you, we are busy. We will come see you when we can. I’m not discussing this with you anymore! I will call you! All right, Mom. All right. I know. All right.”
Then she’d hang up, and put her hand to her forehead, breathing deeply. Then she’d say it. Promise me, Janice. Promise me we’ll never wind up like me and my mom. And I’d promise.
It would never happen. I would always love my mother, would always want to be around her. My mother took me to the bookstore on weekends I spent with her and let me pick out whatever book I wanted. Sometimes we played word games at the kitchen table at night, trying to see how many words we could make from the letters in a famous phrase. For a few months, we were writing a musical together – she and I would come up with a concept, then I’d go away and write the song, picking out the notes on the upright piano she’d inherited in the divorce from Irv. The musical was called “Kids!”, and included a very touching ballad I’d written called “I Never See You Anymore”:
I never see you anymore,
You’re always halfway out the door
On the way to your brand new life –
Don’t you care anymore?
You’re not there anymore.
Mommy – I never see you anymore.
But as the lyrics show, she was already starting to blow me off for work, for her boyfriends; soon, she would meet the man who would become her fourth husband, and I would stop singing for her. Or the song would change: I Never Want to See You Again.I would break my promise. I would hate my own mother. And thus, I would become like her.