Turning eight in Allentown was most depressing. I had no friends, no mommy, and my new extended family that didn’t make much of a big deal about my birthday either. But the day after my big day, lo and behold, I got a card from my mother. I was ecstatic! Inside she wrote how she loved me very much and “very” was underlined. She also said that she would come for me soon and that made me hopeful. It gave me something to look forward to. In fact, it was the only thing I looked forward to.
Next up was Bible camp. I don’t remember agreeing to it, but that didn’t matter. The whole family went to Crestline in the mountains with the church to a big retreat by a lake with cabins, church services, arts and crafts, extended Sunday school crap and other activities, and no way out.
I made a cross out of match sticks and a religious “art book” called “The Book of the Lamb.” I remember my aunt Dolly being so proud of me. She gave me such praise for that little book, like I had finally understood everything about Jesus, Heaven and the Rapture now that my mom was out of the picture. I don’t know if at the time I realized that the whole thing was just a structured indoctrination or if I was just trying to please the adults around me because I was missing my mother, or what. Maybe I really believed it all. It was a confusing time.
I remember what was even more confusing during that trip was when I was starting to crush on a little boy I saw there at the camp. He was about my brother’s age and he had a little sister much younger than I was. I saw them both together out on the lake in a little row boat. He had blond hair, almost shoulder length, and reminded me a little bit of David from Bassett Street – Jackie’s older brother – because that was how his hair was too.
I’d follow him around camp sometimes when I had nothing better to do, until one day I saw him in a dress and realized that he was a girl.
Funny thing was, I didn’t care. My crush remained the same. I still liked her and followed her around and wanted to talk to her, but I was too shy to spark a conversation with her. I think I tried once, but she was shy too, and I also felt like there was something wrong with me that I liked her in a romantic-type way, so I mostly kept my distance. Plus I knew I’d never see her again after the trip, so I really didn’t bother with it.
When we got back to Allentown from the camping trip, my dad started talking to Mike and I about getting baptized, and whether or not we had accepted Jesus as our lord and savior. At the time I suppose I did. I knew that’s what my dad wanted. That was what Ken and Dolly wanted, and all the rest of them. I couldn’t tell you now if that was what I wanted or not. I knew it was where things needed to lead and it seemed like a good idea at the time, so it was all arranged and we met with the pastor of the church to get it all started.
Well, it turned out to be a really big deal, these two Jewish kids getting baptized in the Mennonite church, and it was in the Allentown newspaper. I later found out that my mother said to my father that, “You can dunk them in all the holy water you want – they’ll still be Jewish!” which was pretty funny, and correct.
Since my mom was gone, all I heard from my dad and his family was what a terrible human being she was and how mentally ill she was. It was “good” she was gone because she was an unfit mother, and we were “better off” without her because she was incapable of taking care of us or giving us a godly life. They kind of made her out to be satanic in a lot of ways because she was not religious and because she was a Jew and they kept calling her godless, even though she had always told me that she believed in God. She told me that when our Grandma Rose died, and many times after. I sometimes wondered if my parents ever even talked to each other about such things.
I felt there was a part – half – of me that was unworthy because I was Jewish. It was extra important for me to get baptized to cleanse the Jew out of me – they felt, and I began to feel too.
But living with Ken and Dolly had its perks, even though Ken was a scary mother fucker. It was beautiful there for one thing. They had a vegetable farm too. I was in charge of gathering the green beans and snapping off the edges, placing them into a basket and cleaning them. I also gathered blueberries with Dolly and my cousin Sheila so Dolly could make homemade ice cream.
I could run for what seemed like miles in the back yard along the hedge of wild sunflowers that bordered the back of the property. It was like nothing I had experienced back in Los Angeles. Like a dream.
Then, September came and I was enrolled in school, of course it was about a week later than the day school actually started, so a lot of attention was put on me and I was announced to the class as the “new student” from Los Angeles. I became a kind of thing of interest, and when word came out that I was a Jew, one student asked to see my horns – I kid you not. I was dumbfounded and couldn’t even be sure if he was kidding, but he was serious.
Everyone in this part of the town was either Mennonites or some branch of a simple kind of Christian. I wondered what the hell they had been taught about Jews. Perhaps not all of them were taught badly of them – my father nearly converted when he met my mother and never seemed to have any kind of hatred for the Jewish people, and in fact loved them and even felt they were special, but Ken was another story. I just never understood it.
I did pray a lot, but I prayed directly to God. I prayed and wished my mom would come and take me away from it all, however beautiful and quaint the nature was. It was all so sad without my mom. A huge piece was missing from my life. I would imagine her being outside my school in a taxicab, waiting for me when the day was over. She’d scoop me up and together we would go back to LA and live together happily ever after. I’d dream about it.
But every day was the same. At the end of the school day, the loud speaker in the classroom would dismiss each group of students one at a time. Bus 15, Bus 24, Bus 33, and so on. After all the damn bus kids got dismissed, the walkers were finally let go. “Walkers are dismissed…Walkers are dismissed.” They said it twice. I waited for that female voice to say those fucking words while I sat through all those bus numbers at my desk while the minutes passed well after three o’clock. I didn’t think it was very fair when my house was so close, I could taste it.
My brother attended Salisbury Middle School, which was located right next door to my school, and I knew he had to wait for me. I’d feel bad for him the longer the minutes ticked by, knowing he probably got out before me, as he usually did. Sometimes he’d start walking a little bit ahead of me, but I’d find him and catch up to him, as he’d be the only body on the street walking up to Ken and Dolly’s house.
But one one day, late in the fall, when walkers were finally dismissed, I started out of Salisbury Elementary. No sign of my brother, so I began walking up my street towards home, and there was my mother in a taxicab with the door open waiting for me. I thought it was a dream. I could hardly believe what I was seeing. She was waiving me towards her to come quickly. I didn’t even have time to pinch myself. I wasn’t sure if it was real, but it was.
I got into the cab with her and she was crying and hugging me, and kissing me all over my face. We went straight to the Philadelphia airport. I was so excited, but I was also scared. I knew I had just been kidnapped. I knew my father was going to be really worried. I didn’t have any clothes besides the ones I was wearing. This fantasy come true was very strange in reality.
When we got to LA, Mom was staying in a sleazy motel in the south end of Korea Town. All the water that came out of the faucets were orange because the pipes were so fucked up, and the whole building smelled like mold, and I could swear I heard live chickens in the room next to us.
My mom was fucked up too. Her hair was wild and undone. It was the first time I saw her roots and they were almost all gray.
She was depressed and crying a lot. The whole time I was there, she was either on the phone with her mother or with my father fighting about how she wanted to take care of me, but both were telling her to put me back on a plane to Pennsylvania. I could hear my father screaming at her through the receiver.
She’d lay on the floor on the phone, and when she wasn’t, she was crying and hitting herself on the blue stinky couch. I would try to stop her, but she kept trying to harm herself in one way or another, scratching herself with a tweezers on her arm or punching herself in the head. She pulled on her own hair and put herself down, saying she was a fucked up loser. She was quite the mess, and I swung between crying for her or ignoring her, relieved when she slept from popping too many pills.
When she slept, I worked on my homework that was in my book bag that I brought with me from school, even though I didn’t know if I was staying or going, but within a day or so, I was back on a plane, headed for Philadelphia with a TWA chaperon by my side.
The music I heard on the head phones were the very same 10 songs that repeated over and over as when I was flying with my mom to LA. I would fly TWA on that same route back and forth a couple more times listening to those same songs. They became the soundtrack to my life during that time. Dreams by Fleetwood Mac was the song that seemed to be the most fitting for the situation at the time. The lyrics reeled in my head as if the song was written specifically for my family. What you had, and what you loved. It seemed like that was true no matter which direction I was flying.
When I got back to Allentown, my father had just moved himself and my brother into a three bedroom apartment about three blocks away from Ken and Dolly. All our furniture was there. My bedroom was all set up for me when I got there. My mother promised me that when she got on her feet she would come back and get me again, so I felt like it was all temporary.
I did not like the apartment. It was a far cry from all the houses we were living in and working our way up to in California. The building looked like the projects or something. It was just all brick, and the apartment was dull and had flat brown carpet. There were no curtains of any kind on the windows. It felt like an army barracks. And I was unhappy.
The landlord did not like us kids and actually called us the “Jew kids.” They were a husband and wife in their late 50s, but looked older, and the wife smoked cigars. They seemed like miserable people in general. They seemed to doubt my father for the rent. He was still looking for work, but he had some money in savings. The landlords just seemed to lurk about. They were just nosy and crotchety.
At school, I was assigned the flute. I couldn’t blow through the thing to save my life. I don’t think I was able to get a single sound out of that thing. I was not allowed to change instruments either. It was either the flute or nothing.
There was one time when a kid from school invited me to come over to their house for a sleep over. I thought I finally made a friend. I don’t even remember if the child was a girl or a boy, but I went back to their house on the school bus. It felt like it was several miles away from my house and I was totally uncomfortable because I don’t think we were all that friendly in school. I did not understand what this child saw in me or why I was invited to their home, but I went.
I remember sitting at the family dinner table and afterward, we all sat around the couch and watched a movie and ate popcorn, during which I very suddenly became nauseous, and out of the blue without having any control of it whatsoever, I violently vomited all over their couch.
I was mortified. I began to cry and panic and tell them how very sorry I was. I even started to hyperventilate and freak out from embarrassment. They probably never seen anything like it. They seemed so normal and functional. They wound up calling my dad to come pick me up and I never spent the night there again. I don’t know what the kid told the other kids at school. I didn’t much care. I just went back to avoiding other kids as I normally did.
Then, something amazing happened on Thanksgiving day. Something so incredible, I didn’t think about anything sad, or about missing my mom, those stupid landlords, my loneliness, or anything. Because it began to snow.
It was about 4:30 in the afternoon and My dad told us to come to the living room window, and there it was – snow falling from the sky and onto the grass. It was magical! We had never seen it before. Our eyes were huge. We hurried to get clothes on to go out there. It was awesome. We skidded around on the grass, ate the snowflakes that fell in our mouths, gathered up enough to throw at each other and had a wonderful experience. The last thing we wanted to do was go eat Thanksgiving dinner or go to bed that night.
The next morning, everything was covered. I’d never seen anything like it in my whole life. It was the most beautiful thing I’d ever seen. All the rooftops and trees, the ground and everyone’s cars, and icicles hung from below the windows too. I couldn’t wait to go out there. We played all morning. I loved breaking the icicles under the window sills all at once with my mitten fingers to hear the xylophone noise they’d make.
And there’s nothing like sledding down a snowy mountain, headed for some icy bushes, laying belly down on your brother’s back. That was quite a thrill. And just beyond those bushes was a frozen lake too. If you managed to plow through those bushes, you might wind up on top of the lake, and God knows how thin the ice really was.
My brother and I, along with our cousins had to walk a couple blocks in back of the houses on Ken and Dolly’s street and then climb the wall of the turnpike – and cross it to the other side – in order to get to Monster Hill. If the adults knew that we were crossing the freeway, Ken would have beat the shit out of every one of us, but the fun and excitement was worth the risk. So with our sleds, we did this dangerous feat and had a great time. I was too young to operate a sled by myself I suppose, so my brother laid belly down, head first, and I on top of him while we both screamed. It might have been the most fun I ever had as a child.
Mike and I also made an epic snow man. Actually, it was a big snow dog, like a cartoony Saint Bernard. We even cried when he began to melt. We were so heart broken to see him go and kept taking pictures of him in his every state of decay.
Then Christmas came and my father, for some godforsaken reason, got my brother a bee-bee gun. Mike wound up shooting the birds and little animals outside his bedroom window.
The landlords found out about this and were at our door complaining about it all the time – that woman with that fucking cigar hanging out of her mouth. But I couldn’t blame her, I was also very upset that my own brother was killing birds and little squirrels. I was embarrassed and sad and it made me think he was a dick. He probably thought he was “hunting” or maybe he was just a child asshole.
While it was still winter, my mom fetched me again, but my father knew about it. I think it was just a visit, and my nana picked me up from the airport in LA. This time, my mom was living with Nana.
Jack and Nana lived in Korea Town in an apartment on St. Andrews Place, down between Beverly and 3rd. It was not an ideal neighborhood. They could afford much better, but that’s where they lived.
Now that she was staying with her mom, this trip felt a bit more stable. It didn’t smell like mold. It smelled like a different kind of mold. Old people’s musty old smells, which was actually quite comforting to me.
This time while I was there, my mom had just gotten a face lift. She had stitches around her eyes and under her chin and above her scalp where beads of blood would come out of and I would have to pat them down with damp paper towels. It was so disgusting. I felt faint every time I had to do this.
She was on a ton of pain killers, but she was still in pain, swollen and bruised. She had an extra deep stitch in her chin because she had a prosthetic one placed inside with an indented cleft made in the middle. For what reason, I don’t know. I guess she always wanted to have one.
Mom got a nose job back when she was just 16 years old. She was always on me about getting one myself since I was 15 or 16. She absolutely hated my nose and would have given me the money at any time for me to “fix” it. Not money for college or a car or rent, but if I wanted to get a nose job, the money would be there for me at the snap of my fingers. All I had to do is say the word, but I never wanted to undergo such a painful procedure, and in my mind – while I did not consider myself pretty in any way shape or form – I did not think my nose was such a tremendous problem. However, my mother could hardly look at me. She wanted to fix my schnoz and pin back my ears. She could hardly stand the sight of me. Apparently my ears pop out like Dumbo or something to that effect. I used to walk around thinking I was some kind of freak show with a giant Jewish nose and elf ears, and took to wearing a lot of hats between the ages of 15 to 25. If there was some kind of nose hat, I would have been wearing that too, so I just tried to make sure people looked at me head on and never via profile – which is not an easy task. You try to do that. It’s impossible.
I only stayed with my mom at Nana’s for a couple of weeks. Mom still hadn’t found a job. She said that the plastic surgery was for the purpose of getting a job and finding a new man. She used to tell me that she hoped that one day I would find a rich man so I would never have to worry about having to work and even at eight years old I thought this was a sad viewpoint.
Upon leaving, I just felt like I was a nursemaid for my mom during my stay. We didn’t do anything meaningful and again, she could not keep me. TWA, here I come.