Aunt Natalie is wearing a mother-of-pearl pin on her coat. When you get up close, you can tell that the six-pointed star in its center was carved by hand. It says “Zion” in Hebrew. I have the other one; my mother gave me hers the last time I was back East. I would wear it if men could get away with that out here in the desert.
This early spring day in Philadelphia Aunt Natalie is has on a long coat and high heels. Probably also a pair of good earrings, also mother-of-pearl, fine but not gaudy. Not that Mom needs to be impressed, but my aunt has standards no matter whom she is going to see.
My aunt dresses conservatively, but she is not so plain as to cause remark. When she was still living with my grandparents, she was the one who put the Pesach dishes on display in the mahogany china closet, and it was always Aunt Natalie who put the silver candlesticks away as soon as it got dark Saturday nights. Her clothing, and her face and carriage, say, Watch out, I’m someone to be reckoned with, even if I’m old. My other aunts and uncles have been easier on themselves as they got older, but not Aunt Natalie.
It’s been seven years since I’ve been back, so perhaps she looks different now. Her white hair must be a bit thinner, her height maybe even less than five feet. But I’m sure she still walks as erect as ever. I doubt that her face is wrinkled, except for two lines that give her mouth such intensity. My mother has the same lines; when I was young, I used to wonder why Mom was angry in her sleep.
I think of my aunt riding the bus into town. She sits down and smooths the front of her coat. She’s not used to buses. It’s been barely a year since she moved out to Bustleton, to the far northeastern edge of Philadelphia. When she lived downtown, she could walk everywhere, even if the streets posed danger. Downtown is where I last saw her, at a party for her seventieth birthday, when she at last got to chant the Haftarah and celebrate a Bat Mitzvah.
I can remember how she waffled on doing it — it still makes me laugh. “I’m too old,” she’d say, “I keep forgetting things. How can I learn all this new stuff when I can’t even remember where I am half the time?” But, for once, it was me pushing her: go ahead, do it, and she did, and I kept my promise to be there.
The bus pulls into the terminal. Everyone knows that the train waits until all the buses arrive before it begins its run into town, so she doesn’t have to rush. She gets down from the bus and walks to the stone steps that lead up to the El platform. She makes it up the first flight, and then stops to rest her legs, adjusts her hair blown slightly awry, and then continues up. Maybe I shouldn’t have moved so far from town, she thinks. Maybe I shouldn’t have worn heels! Well, it’s too late to worry about that now.
As she reaches the platform the train pulls away. ONE MINUTE you can’t wait! Now she is left alone on the platform, having to stand some ten or fifteen minutes more till the next train. She thinks over her itinerary. First, the stop in Center City to get the flyers for the Hadassah rally, then maybe some lunch in town, that would be nice, and then she will take the other train out to visit my mother. I moved out here to get away from the frenzy of town, not to have to go through all this hustle and bustle, but no sooner do I move but people tell me I have to go here, I have to go there…
A man comes up the steps. He is well over six feet tall and heavyset, black, about thirty, with a leather jacket on. Aunt Natalie has checked him out; she knows better than to show fear but, as the man walks towards her, she turns her head away ever so slightly, and she knows that the man has registered this.
The man is angry. “Woman, you’re a racist! Don’t you think I have something else to do besides beat up old ladies? I see how you’re afraid. It’s because I’m black, isn’t it?”
My God, you can’t even think wrong these days! This big galoot is ticked off because I’m afraid of him. Can you beat that? she thinks. What she tells him is, “It’s because you’re big. You’re very, very big.”
“Lady, you wouldn’t be shaking in your shoes if some big white guy was here instead of me.”
“Are you kidding me?” My aunt almost laughs. “The hell I wouldn’t!”
“Well.” The man shows surprise at her ferocity. “I only wanted to ask something… Did they fix the tracks yet, or are we going to have to switch to a bus down there in Kensington? My feet get tired of going up and down all the time.”
“I wish I knew,” she says. To herself she thinks, Your feet? YOUR feet? How would you like to be almost eighty?
They hear the train approach the station. The man walks to the far end of the platform, and enters the last car. Aunt Natalie uses the door that opens near her, and sits down, facing forward, where she can see everything that might happen. It feels good to be sitting again. The doors hiss shut; the train drags itself out of the station, then picks up speed.
If this were my journey, if I were the one visiting my mother in the hospital, then this is when the plane would be taking off from El Paso. But I’m not; I haven’t seen my mother in seven years, and I don’t know if I’ll ever see her again.
When she had the first stroke four years ago, Mom asked me not to come in. With my asthma – the reason I moved out here in the first place — there’d be two sick people to worry about. I talked it over with my aunt. “If I come in anyway, you know what will happen. It’s such a long trip, she’ll be sure she’s just about to die, and they just haven’t told her about it yet.” Aunt Natalie agreed. It was too bad that my mother was that way, she said, but we had to balance the risks and desires of everyone involved. Better my mother get well.
My aunt sees herself as the pragmatist, her eyes never clouded over by idealism. How many times did she tell me, “Yes, we all feel that way, honey, but you’ve got to be realistic, you can’t live your life hoping other people will be reasonable.” When she represented my uncles in the clothing business, she met every man as an equal, smiled and chatted pleasantly, but always
remembered the goal in any meeting, never wandering off.
She was the one who slipped me the money to apply to college when Mom and Dad couldn’t afford it. You might call that idealism, but Aunt Natalie said it was just common sense; how was I going to stay off welfare without a college education? She says that I was the first one in the family who finished college. But now I know that she had put herself through night school to become an accountant. She seems to think that night school doesn’t count.
The car is old. There are no graffiti, this is Philly, not New York, but some windows are cracked, and the cracks throw slivers of light at her. The train rounds a short curve, leaning over, the seats creak inside and the rails groan and scream outside. She has to push down on her tired legs to keep from sliding on the rattan-covered seats, smooth from thousands of passengers. My
heavens, I’ll bet I rode this same train when I was a kid.
As the train picks up speed, she thinks again about Mom, calls her stubborn — she should know! — and wishes that Mom would let me come visit. Maybe she’ll bring it up this afternoon. Aunt Natalie hopes too that I won’t be so stubborn, that I’ll consent to stay in exile a little while longer if she can’t get my mother’s consent. It’s getting harder and harder to keep the family under control.
Her thoughts turn to me. At least she’s not worrying anymore about me bringing home a shicksa for a wife. In fact, she has never said a thing about my being gay. That’s the way it is, we’ll just have to live with it.
My mother never said anything either. I think maybe that was the reason she didn’t want me to visit. But my aunt says no: “I don’t know what it is, but it’s not that.”
What bothers Aunt Natalie is that I’m so open about it, that I’m letting myself in for so much hardship, giving the world such ammunition to use against me.
“Okay, so you have to write your poems, but can’t you just use another name?” she would say.
And I’d answer, “You never backed down from being Jewish. What about when you asked to take off work for Yom Kippur, what about that? And that was back in 1930!” After all, my father told me that his machinist rating came down sixty points after he took off for Yom Kippur. I tell my aunt, “No one has to be afraid anymore for taking off for the Holidays, and whose doing was that, if not the people who had been so ‘unrealistic’ back then, people like you?”
“Well, yes,” she replies, every time we have this conversation, “but that was different. That was only a career. These people are, takkeh, a little crazy.” I mention Father Coughlin or the Bund — or the Aryan Nation, for that matter — and she just shuts up. Finally she says, “Look, you’re a grown man; I can’t tell you what to do and what not to do, but you’ve got to be realistic. You can’t pretend no one cares.”
And then she adds that she worries. Something stops me from asking her why she never worries about herself. And, somehow, I’ve never gotten around to telling her about when I was in college and my Jewish roommate asked me not to wear the tie-clip with the tiny Jewish star. “You don’t have to be so….” Now I know the word he wanted: “blatant.” There’s blatant, and there’s realistic.
The train is five stops farther down the line now, and it looks like the track-repair work is finally done. Thank heaven! I don’t have to shlep down another set of steps, another bus, up more steps to the El. This time I can sit right here till it gets to Fifteenth Street. But the rails still creak and groan, even with the new tracks; she shakes her head slightly from side to side, the same attitude of — what is it, disgust? — as when she saw how old and dusty the car is.
By this time, the train is running through a more densely populated part of the city. On both sides of the tracks there are small apartment houses, brick buildings three or four stories high, with windows facing the trains. It’s too cold to leave the windows open, but she knows what the apartments look like — the rose-patterned wallpaper, the wood-stained handrails on white-painted banisters. She’s lived all her life in Philadelphia, and, if I never happened to live in Fishtown, well, Fishtown isn’t so different from Northern Liberties, or Strawberry Mansion.
She remembers the house on Dauphin Street, yes, 3204, in Strawberry Mansion. It had a wide porch in front. The Park was just across the street. She thinks about Bubbie, my grandmother, whom she has grown to look like more and more. Bubbie was a hard woman who gave the eight children little slack in growing up. How often did my aunt have to be mother to one of the younger children! Not that I’m complaining. There’s things to be done, and when there’s things to be done, what you do is you grit your teeth and go do them.
All that I myself remember of that period is the open-sided wooden trolleys that used to go from Dauphin Street over the Schuylkill into Fairmount Park. Over the river and into the woods. I loved the color of wood everywhere, seats varnished or shellacked, painted posts and roof, steps alongside the car to connect down to the ground. And the enormous Park. I remember running through the seats of an amphitheater one sunny morning while the Philadelphia Orchestra practiced for the evening concert. Mom thought I should get some culture, so she ended up chasing me through the aisles till she finally caught up with me and dragged me away, but not before I threw her off balance and she crashed into the hedges at the edge of the Dell.
But I don’t remember the house. My earliest memories of Bubbie are from the kitchen, where I saw her start a Passover cake from a dozen eggs. In the last year of her life, she sent a large prayer shawl to me here in New Mexico, she alone knowing that she was dying, knowing that I would want her approval to immerse myself in the anti-war movement. Aunt Natalie thought it was commendable, but not “realistic.” Mom didn’t worry about that; she was going door-to-door with peace petitions. Maybe my mother isn’t really concerned about my being gay, but I think that somewhere down deep where she herself can’t see it, she hates not getting any grandchildren from me.
I’m just beginning to realize that I have no clear idea about how my mother’s family worked. I know that Aunt Natalie’s memories of Dauphin Street are mixed. She remembers the War, her brothers and sisters running in and out, day by day, year by year. This one was wounded, that one back on furlough, it was a regular balagán. And she remembers me on Dauphin Street my
first few months, while my father was out at Great Lakes.
My aunt smiles, and allows a chuckle to escape, but she has to grab onto the hand rest, because the train is making its great screeching turn towards town, descending into a tunnel. It’s a wonder these things stay on the tracks where they belong.
She looks around. Sure enough, there are a few questionable people on board, but the car is full enough to deter all but the most foolish attacker. In the heart of the city, the train stops every few streets, under the big department stores and banks, places my aunt knows well.
This is the point where I’d arrive at Dallas-Fort Worth Airport and run for the departing plane thirty gates away, hoping to make it without losing my luggage or spraining an ankle, racing against the flight schedule of a monster airport.
As the train pulls into Thirteenth Street, Aunt Natalie decides not to stay the extra stop, Fifteenth. She stands; she would like to brush herself off, but there is no time or space. She holds onto one of the vertical poles. When the door hisses open, she steps into the throng of people, the tumult in which she had lived for twenty-five years.
She gets caught up in the frenzy of the moving crowd. Instead of moving down the concourse towards the office-building exit she needs, she is pulled towards the steps that lead down to the northbound subway. I don’t remember the crowds being so big. Or the shoving. Finally, she makes it to the other station, the route that goes north. What is going on in this city? It’s almost like it’s not mine anymore. I’ve lived here almost eighty years!
A train is already waiting, but it is a Local. The Express will come soon, and she’d rather not have to stop at the stations in the rundown part of town, stations like Dauphin Street. She moves to the other side of the platform. She can hear the Express train approaching. As the crowd lunges closer to the edge of the platform, Aunt Natalie finds herself being pushed forward more than she wants, feels herself falling, and grabs at the nearest coat, a woman’s coat. My aunt is able to right herself, but the woman, shocked by her behavior, doesn’t seem to understand. Aunt Natalie tries dumbly to apologize, but the train is already filling up the station and the woman moves away, ignoring her. By the time my aunt enters the express, she cannot find a seat. It is one of those new cars without vertical poles. She’s too short for the hanging straps, so she must make do with a hand rest attached to the seat, not enough to anchor her against the train’s side-to-side swaying while it executes a squealing S-turn. I’m like some kind of dancing giraffe on these long, skinny legs.
Then a young black man gets up and motions to her. Oh my God, not again! The man is tall and big, and wears a leather jacket. But she sees in a moment that it’s not the same man. He wants her to take the seat. She nods; it’s too loud to talk so she mouths, “Thank you.”
She sits for a while before brushing off her coat once more, and then reaches down to feel her ankle. That’s it! I’m not wearing heels again, period.
Suddenly she remembers the errand she was supposed to run while in Center City. That was the whole reason I took this roundabout route: to pick up the flyers for the rally! She was going to post them at her new synagogue, and at the apartment complex (where there really aren’t that many Jews, anyway). Well, I’m sure as hell not going back now; it will just have to wait, or better yet someone else will have to do it. What’s happening to my brain, is this senility setting in? She asks me this every so often, so I have to remind her that no one else thinks so. The city cluster of Hadassah chapters still keep her on as accountant. So, maybe it’s not senility. So what is it?
My aunt reminds herself, at least I can navigate the subway. After the stroke four years ago, my mother never recovered the use of her right hand or lower right leg. She did learn to get around with a four-footed cane, and, in spite of Aunt Natalie’s advice, found a way to manage the steps in their old house.
Where would I be at this point? Ohio. Or Kentucky. It would be cloudy below, so I wouldn’t see the mountains.
My childhood was like this: Dad was the one who told jokes: “I bought a wooden whistle but it wooden whistle, so I got a steel whistle, and it steel wooden whistle. So I bought a tin whistle, and now I tin whistle.”
Mom had sayings. Like one of my earliest memories, I must have been five; they were talking about the siege of Jerusalem in forty-eight, and my uncle was telling us, “We’re doing fine. We’ll break out.” My mother put her hand on her brother’s arm and said, “From your mouth to God’s ear.”
The train is running quietly now. It passes Dauphin Street, and the young black man gets up for the next stop. He comes over and tells my aunt, “You scared the heck out of me back there, ma’am. You need to wear street shoes!” My aunt surprises herself and laughs, agreeing heartily: “Mister, you are so right!” They tell each other to “Take care,” and he goes over to the door as the train comes into the next station.
It is only a few stops now. The train passes near the apartment my grandparents took after the children all moved away. Steps there, too. It’s funny; for years you never even notice those things, and then it’s all you see. Twenty years ago, I had no trouble climbing up or down; it was Mama who was having a hard time with a second-floor apartment. In fact, she had to give it up after Zaydeh died, to take a smaller apartment in an elevator building a few blocks away. So now I’ve done the same thing. She gives the same grimace, the one that’s mostly disgust and a little of something else.
The train pulls in to Olney Station. This is where most people get off, including my aunt, so the train will stay here a minute, giving her time to leave at her own pace. She climbs the last stone flight of steps, into the open air. Finally. The milky sunlight has turned to a pale overcast, with a fresh wind. I hope it won’t rain, at least not until I get home.
She orients herself, then heads east for a few blocks to the hospital. This point is a hub for bus lines that fan out from the subway. Most were trolleys once, and the tracks still remain in patches, so she has to step carefully to avoid catching herself in them. You’d think they’d fix these things so people wouldn’t go breaking their necks! A block further, she notices, That’s where the eye-doctor was, what was his name? (his name was Bialystok), and the consolidated Hebrew school — I went there for four years — used to be a block farther. She enters the hospital’s grounds.
She has already figured out where my Mom’s room is; she moves toward the bank of elevators. She is bending down to rub her ankle when a door opens and out come six tiny poodles, yipping and jumping on and off of a wheelchair. The patient in the chair is a woman the same age as Aunt Natalie. She is too excited by the dogs to see my aunt. The man pushing the wheelchair is my age, or even a bit younger, and the man to his right is his life-long partner, though Aunt Natalie probably doesn’t see that. The dogs have had their fur dyed, each a color of the rainbow.
Such mishugass, she thinks, afraid the poodles are going to claw at her coat, but they continue to dance and jump, only occasionally licking at her ankle. A bouquet of poodles. My aunt moves into the elevator as the Poodle Event heads toward the lobby. Upstairs, she greets Mom.
I try to picture Mom as she is now, but I can’t.
“You won’t believe what I saw on the elevator!” my aunt says.
“Poodles!” my mother shouts gleefully. “Weren’t they something? They came right past here not two minutes ago!” I still can’t see her; is she sitting in bed? does she have a cane?
Aunt Natalie is about to switch back into calling them mishugass, but thinks better of it. In the latest attack, just a week ago, Mom lost control of her left foot, the foot that has pulled her around since that first stroke. Back then she had promised herself she would recover enough to come out West again to see me, to do the Grand Canyon again. But now, she has all she can do every day to work with the nerve endings she still owns, learning still one more slow and painful time how to walk steps, how to turn a corner. She has barely enough patience to be civil to her older, know-it-all sister, though yes, yes, she is happy for the visit. What she has left over for me is not enough for the job she thinks she’s supposed to do as a mother. That’s what I realize, though she won’t tell me.
She will never look again the way she did seven years ago. This is the reason I can’t come visit, isn’t it? It’s not me, it’s her. I am the only one left whose picture of her is not maimed by a stroke. I’m the guard at a remote outpost, preserving the memory of some faraway empire.
Now the plane would touch down at Philly International. Even a cab would take forever to get to the hospital, but I’d get one. But what could I tell her? That I want her to get well? That I hope she can come out again to my desert, to see my own rainbow? From your mouth to God’s ear.
From your mouth to God’s ear.