My mother was dead set against me calling her Ma. When the offending sound passed from my lips, she pinched my chin and enunciated very slowly, the way she later talked to her parakeet, Mr. Puccini— “Baby say Mern not Mama. Baby say Mern.” She was hoping, no doubt, that with time and a little encouragement, I might grow into an adaptable companion whose demands were minimal, someone with whom she could discuss Cary Grant’s perfect profile, Shelley Winters’s
yen for men.
Mern was different and I was different too. I was the only kid I knew who didn’t have a father. Do you miss him? neighborhood kids would ask. “He’s gone,” I’d say, shrugging. Will you see him again? Why did he leave? “Don’t know,” I’d answer. And I didn’t.
I soon learned about playground cruelty, the broad scope of taunting, school— a place where tedium and terror hunkered side by side. I learned the response of no-response, the Stare-’Em-Down factor, how to hold back tears by pressing my tongue into my palate until my tormentors got bored and skipped off. I kept my distance from games of jump rope and hopscotch, girls in gangs of three or four. Mern signed my report cards each semester without looking at the growing number of checks in the Needs Improvement column, the loopy M in “Mern” sprouting butterfly wings. My mother didn’t care if I memorized the states and their capitals, the names of the presidents, the five biggest rivers in the world, so why should I?
There were no nursery rhymes or bedtime stories at our house, no “Jack Be Nimble” or “Hickory Dickory Dock,” no Sleeping Beauty or Donald Duck, but my mother taught me how to cream anyone at rummy, and I was a whiz at solitaire. As for domesticity, she was allergic to cooking and cleaning, and the naked skin of any fowl made her shudder; she never cooked a turkey in her life. We never had a Christmas tree until Sam moved in, rarely a birthday cake, and only New
Year’s Eve was consistently celebrated— with Coke and pretzels for me, rum and Coke and pretzels for Mern, our horoscopes dissected after the sun went down. My mother did not believe in church or religion. Her words: “I’ll believe in God— the Man Upstairs— the day God
believes in me.” As for Jesus Christ: “What good is a god that gets himself killed?”
Mern liked to say she was a makeup arteeste, but actually she was a manicureeste. She worked at Annie Stiltz’s beauty shop, wore cat eye glasses with rhinestones at the temples, and studied the lives of movie stars. Her Bibles were Photoplay and Modern Screen. Each month she’d
select an actress and alter herself accordingly— Rita H in January, a raven- haired Elizabeth T in March. Lana, Ava, Grace: pageboy, spit curls, French twist. Once, from too much peroxide, her hair turned pea green and fell out. For weeks she wore a kerchief, said she was playing Garbo in Camille. Without adornments she was enough of a blue- eyed beauty to make men spin around and whistle, but this flattery could not be trusted, since men, she said, were about as choosy as
Her oddness clung— to her, to me. It spread over everything like road tar on a summer’s day. She’d have me laughing, then in the next breath demand I quit bugging her. Her mood changes left me puzzled and on guard. Some nights she wept muffled, private sobs. I would have crawled on my knees to comfort her if I hadn’t been afraid she’d freeze me out with a dead- eyed stare.
My mother believed a person’s name was her destiny. “I’m named after a British actress,” she told me, and when I asked if it was Myrna Loy, she threw back her head and laughed with disdain. “I’m no Myrna Loy! Myrna Loy has no pizzazz.” Around the time I was two, I mispronounced my own name, substituting Cissy for Eunice, which I later shortened to CC, initials being more mysterious. Later, when I asked my mother how she’d chosen the name Eunice for me, she recited the moment her finger had landed on it in a book. Mr. Tabachnik,
our downstairs landlord, maintained Eunice had noble origins— meaning “victory” in Greek— but usually he called me “Cisskala” or “CC Dumpling,” nicknames that were kisses to my ears.
Mern’s big dream was to go to Hollywood and be discovered by Jack Warner or Louis B. Mayer. The closest she came to Movie Land, however, was the theater a few blocks from us, the Hollywood Cinema. The first time I went with her I was about six; we were going to a matinee of an old movie, a real tearjerker called Portrait of Jennie. “Get ready for Hol- lee- wood,” she said, spiriting me from my bedroom in her cherry toreadors and cardigan with the fake rabbit collar. So vast was my happiness, so intoxicated my senses with the perfumed, blazing sight of her, I forgot to tie my shoes. “Girls out on the town,” my mother sang, grabbing my hand. She hated to be late for the feature: in an instant, storefronts and houses were passing in a blur. The ticket
lady let me in for free. Then Mern was dragging me past the astonished usher, up the stairs to the mezzanine, to the box seats, the best seats in the house where a crystal chandelier threw rainbows over our heads. We plunked ourselves down as the houselights dimmed, and Mern leaned over to spill Milk Duds into my hand.
A hush descended, the blue velvet curtain rose, the sheer curtains parted, and the screen came alive. For the next hour and a half, Mern squeezed my pinky until the fat face of Winston Churchill replaced Jennifer Jones. Woken from our trance, we scrambled to the Ladies, a room done up in red brocade with two reclining lounges and marble sinks. Before the hordes barged in, my mother opted for a tufted chair and pulled out her compact, pretending to be a high- society lady powdering her nose.
When I was a bit older, I asked Mern why our little town of Wild Pea, Illinois, had a fancy theater, and she answered it was because of the railroad— vaudeville troupes had once passed through. In those days, the Hollywood had been the Orpheum Theater. Eddie Cantor and Sarah Bernhardt had sung on its stage. The magic’s all gone now, she mourned. Vaudeville was kaput. A few trains still rattled down the tracks, but the passengers were cows.
We stayed for the second showing, our sighs braiding into one. Which was why I dreaded the sound of those final arpeggios. Coats bunched between our knees, we lingered until the credits scrolled down in cursive flourishes. When the lights popped on, Mern’s eyes were ringed with streaky mascara, her lipstick sucked off. Our old familiar selves were waiting in the dusk outside, and we weren’t in a rush to claim them. Mern and Eunice. Eunice and Mern.
When I pestered Mern for details about my absent father, she would alternatively bray and rant unstoppably or get tight- lipped and evasive. “His sweet talk might as well have been poison,” she said. She pulled her shirt into two pointy bosoms, stuck out her tongue, and waggled her behind. “He went for big bazoongies.” But he was a great dancer. Sometimes she’d forget herself and roll those huge blue eyes of hers and gush about the jitterbug contests and smoke- filled roadside bars strung with colored lights. “Frankie used to drive me wild. He had this way of holding me,” she said, closing her eyes, swaying her hips to a radio crooner, her arms circling the waist of my invisible father. I could see them together, Mern and my father, spooning and dipping to Nat King Cole’s “There Will Never Be Another You.”
Wildness must have brought them together, a wildness they counted on to keep them fabulously in love. “He was real bad in a good way,” she’d tell me with a throaty laugh, both of us under the spell of those long- ago nights when the stars pitched a teasing love song. But soon enough, her self- righteous anger would kick in, and the bashing would commence. He couldn’t hold a job. Money slipped through his fingers. She accumulated a litany of complaints, a list of accusations.
The bum took money from the mouths of his wife and child, she’d say, and I’d picture Mern and me, doggy- like on our hands and knees, dollar bills clenched in our teeth, my father plucking money from our jaws. This isn’t the life you promised! she must have yelled at him. No cash. No more fun. A kid with a wail like a banshee.
I used to wonder if anyone or anything could have prevented my father from leaving us. I was trying to get an outline of the man, to know his size and shape, the fragrance of his soul. Until I met him in the flesh when I was ten, the picture I had of my father came from a photograph I’d found beneath a tangle of nylons in Mern’s underwear drawer— a lanky, dark- haired guy striking a pose in someone’s yard, his long legs slightly bowed, his thumbs hooked onto his lowslung
dungarees. I could see what Mern meant when she said he was movie- star handsome. He had a lady- killer smile that teased the camera up close. I had his dark looks, the heavy chestnut hair, lashes Mern said she’d kill for. My features were exotic, or so she told me, though my chin was too pointy and my hair wouldn’t hold a perm. “You’re like your father in more ways than one,” she remarked, tapping my cheekbones as if she were searching a wall for studs. Evidently Frankie
hadn’t loved her the way she’d loved him, and I wondered if every time she saw my face, the calamity of that insult returned. Through the walls of our shared bathroom, I sometimes heard the squeak of the medicine cabinet and Mern rummaging for pills. When she thought I was asleep, she’d sit on the toilet and wail his name.
The Big Bum, she called my daddy. “Let me set the record straight on that Big Bum,” she’d say. “He stranded us when you were a mere squirt in diapers. Up and vamoosed in his goddamn got-no- wordsfor- it-babe way. No note. Nothing!” He’d left a hundred bucks tied with a white ribbon, five twenties, in a fry pan. My father, it should be noted, had a showman’s touch. The story of his departure grew more elaborate, more pathetic and heartrending with each passing year. Occasionally my mother conceded he had a big heart. Then she’d add he had a Big Something Else, too, and the Big Something Else got him into trouble. “A big something else?” I’d ask, concerned. “Yeah,” Mern would say, her nostrils pinched from despair. “What would you
know?” A wave of self- sorrow would sweep over her, and she’d grab at the nearest soft thing, me, and smother my face against her scrawny chest. Beneath her sternum rumbled an impressive pattering: Big Bum or not, she still loved my father and imagined his CinemaScope return.
What does a child know? What does she know for certain? Her name? The names of her parents and family? Her address and telephone number? She knows the way to school and back, the streets of her neighborhood. She knows her birthday, the date and year, the name of the president of the United States, the Pledge of Allegiance, the “ Star- Spangled Banner,” the order and names of the months. She knows simple arithmetic, spelling, how to form a perfect cursive. These are the basics, the facts. She also has learned hunger and sleepiness and boredom, when she is safe and when she’s in danger, the itchy feeling in her body in the presence of a liar, the stiff- tongued ache when she’s the one telling a lie.
For the first ten years of my life, I harbored fantasies about my father. My mind was a movie factory, and all my “What If” stories were full of anguish. What if my father had disappeared because he’d had an accident and couldn’t remember who he was and was wandering from city to city, his family in Wild Pea wiped from his brain? What if, right after I was born, he discovered he had a fatal disease and, not wanting us to see him suffer, left without explaining? It wasn’t until he came back that day in June that I recognized the misguided bent of my imagination. My father wasn’t sick, and he obviously wasn’t dead, but he was also not the bogeyman Mern claimed him to be. Inside the bad father, the object of Mern’s snide remarks, I discovered another person whose existence she was ignorant of. My Frankie didn’t have a vicious bone in his body. He only pretended to prefer sexy blondes because that’s who real American men were supposed
to like. Deep down, My Frankie yearned for someone worthy to share his love. Once upon a time, before she’d become her full- fledged Mernself, when she was Grandma Sophie Sunny Polestar’s daughter, a teenager in bobby socks, brushing her hair a hundred strokes before she went to bed, my mother had been that person. Once upon a time, she’d been my father’s chosen, and for a single day in my childhood, I’d been his chosen too.
On that Saturday, the thirteenth of June 1953, I had a date with Mr. Tabachnik to listen to his favorite opera singer, Caruso. Opera was a great artistic tradition, a true expression of human dignity, Mr. Tabachnik believed, and if I wanted to grow up to be a mensch, I should know opera. Mr. Tabachnik exalted in my education. In the sunlit kingdom of his kitchen, he’d put a hand on my shoulder. “Take it from your old friend Tabachnik, Cisskala. You got an A- plus- plus mind.” I was a “schmarty,” he said, which was different from being a smarty- pants, and I owed it to myself to not goof off in school. Education was worth more than gold. I understood that Mr. Tabachnik wanted something for me, though I couldn’t say what; that he believed in my potential made me eager to try. With his encouragement, I read all his encyclopedias, starting with aardvark. Africa was a great continent “shrouded by a veil of ignorance and mystery.” Atomic energy was “the promise of tomorrow.” I’d just turned ten, and during my hours with Mr. Tabachnik I read, I dreamed— we discussed.
My mother wondered what the hell I did down there with the old man, but I just shrugged. Once, when I thought she might even be jealous of my friendship with him, she accused Mr. Tabachnik of being a Russian spy. Of course she was dead wrong. His eyes watered behind thick lenses, and he was deaf in one ear. How could an Old World gentleman who wore bedroom slippers and soft gray sweaters all year round be a spy? In his youth, he’d confessed, he’d ridden freights from the East Coast to Chicago to get away from a situation. Chicago had a big opera house where he could live his dream and join an actors’ guild and maybe write a play or two, but by a twist of fate he’d ended up in Wild Pea.
At ten o’clock, our prearranged time, I knocked on Mr. Tabachnik’s door. He’d been working in the garden and the smell of sun and earth mingled with his sweat. His roses had magical names, which he trilled off in a list— Jeanne D’Arcy, Belle Amour— roses he was rescuing from extinction.
“Cisskala Dumpling,” he said, wringing his hands, “have I got something for you! Come. Make yourself at home.” He pulled me forward into the stifling apartment, opening the drapes he kept closed until I arrived.
“Sit, sit,” he said, indicating one of the deep maroon chairs that matched the faded Persian carpet and the ruby cut- glass decanter on the sideboard that never held a drop of wine. To accommodate my size, Mr. Tabachnik always bolstered my chair with a bed pillow and set out the usual glasses of weak tea, two sugar cubes apiece, and a single spear of pickle on a plate, pickles he knew I loved.
The Victrola sat on a nearby table. Its long arm rested in a metal clasp. Mr. Tabachnik lifted the arm, rubbed his thumb over the needle to clear away fuzz, then carefully shook the record from its paper sleeve and lowered the platter onto the platform. The needle made a dull scratchy sound. “Listen, Cisskala, you’ll hear for yourself, the greatest tenor who ever lived.”
We sat facing each other, our necks arched against tattered doilies. Mr. T closed his eyes and insisted I shut mine: the street noises receded, and I tried to concentrate. I listened hard. Inside the music I heard weeping, anger, shame; then the dark, foreign power of Caruso’s voice invaded me. I recognized the truth when I heard it— not the words but its sound. Something heavy was being chased away off my chest and something else was unlocking. My foot stopped jiggling,
the itch behind my knee where the scratchy nap of the upholstery pressed against my skin stopped itching, and I sank farther into the chair. Behind my eyes I saw a mountain range, pure and lonely, and I knew it was part of the truth too. A noise came out of my throat, a warm sound trying to blend with Caruso’s. Mr. T’s head jerked off the doily, and he thrust an accusatory finger to his lips. My tongue froze; my mouth snapped shut. “You think this is Mr. Ted Mack’s Amateur Hour, young lady!” I slunk down into my chair. Rigoletto! Mr. Tabachnik closed his eyes again and Caruso finished the aria. The needle went around and around in the last groove. Mr.Tabachnik stuck his feet into his bedroom slippers and shuffled to the record player, tousling my hair as he passed. Next was Caruso singing from Pagliacci. Such is the lesson that life teaches us, he said. A clown’s face can’t mask the sadness beneath.
When our listening hour ended, Mr. Tabachnik returned the records to their covers with the same care he’d used removing them. “Such beauty from such an instrument!” I should pay attention. In
Caruso’s mouth each word was fondled and caressed. I might not understand Italian, but it didn’t matter because Enrico Caruso sang from the source of all languages, which was no less than the human heart. This was how Mr. Tabachnik spoke when he wanted to convey the grandness of things: no less than the human heart. “Terrible things happen to people,” he said, the lines in his face deepening, “but from the terrible, beautiful can come.” That was opera, and Caruso was a
genius of grief. Mr. Tabachnik placed a trembling hand on the crown of my head and bent to kiss me. Out of the ugly and terrible comes beauty. I shouldn’t forget it, he said.
The doorbell rang once. Silence, then three loud raps. “Your mother’s expecting someone?” Mr. Tabachnik inquired from the kitchen. He liked to know who was coming and going in our lives. Again, three knocks by an impatient fist. Upstairs, our door scraped open, and Mern’s wedgies clumped down the steps. Mr. Tabachnik and I blinked at each other. A man began to laugh. It was the laugh I’d heard a thousand times in my dreams. We heard Mern exclaim, “Holy moly!
“She knows him?” Mr. Tabachnik said, ear cocked.
My heart jumped like a frog in my chest. I pushed my knuckles into my mouth. The man laughed again. I told Mr. Tabachnik I had to go. He stooped to kiss me, his brows knitted with concern. If there was trouble, I should come right back.
“There won’t be any trouble.” I was mad with glee. “My daddy’s home.”
The Conditions of Love