Among Women

Growing up I used to have a dream…not of being President, or rich, or famous.  The dream I had was sinister.  Its props were a slide and stairs and landings.  In the dream I would take the stairs to the slide then ride down the slide and at the bottom step off onto a landing only to find another slide.  I would sit down on it and continue into the depths, ever deeper…

The dream repeated itself over and over.  In it I moved at a constant speed. I never ran, but went on relentlessly with a certain steadfast expectation of what was to come.  The expectation was always laced with an undertow of fear and inevitability.  Sometimes I paused on the landings, but I always moved on.  Eventually consciousness would come and I’d wake up, sometimes with a shuddering fearfulness, sometimes relieved.  When it was fear I sought out my mother’s room and would climb into bed with her, or sometimes when I’d wake noisily she would come into my room to comfort me. This dream and the routine surrounding it persisted for a year or more. Eventually the dream’s appearance tapered off until all I was left with was a memory of the long slide.

I am thinking back now, peering into that hazy fog of memory, looking for the legacy of that dream. I realize that it was both the spawn and the reflection of my insecurities…alone always and in motion mostly…this dream became the set for my life…its empty, horizonless space my universe.

From the moment of my birth three women took charge of my upbringing; My mother, Adele, her older sister, Miriam, and their mother, Rebeka. They were my lovers, my Praetorian guard, my not-so-secret-service, whose function was to protect me and feed me, while all the time bathing me in unconditional love.  Their devotion a pure reflection of the Los Angeles Police Department’s motto, “To Protect and Serve.”  Despite all this unconditional love and Praetorian determination, I felt permanently exposed…forever undressed and, in a way, unprotected. I was living their dream.  Their collective drive for self-preservation was handed down to me–their little boy of wonderment.  That was it.  I was theirs, no two ways about it.  Before I was even a year old my father felt compelled to put a sign over my crib that read, “Hands Off.”  I think he must have been angry from the moment I was born, suddenly finding himself at the back of the queue formed by my mother, my aunt and my grandmother.  Ours was an early feminist family though once I came along I became the focus–the fictional sun around whom my mother, aunt and grandmother orbited.

There are photographs of me with my mother and grandmother in Riverside Park.  I am in my stroller or on my feet all smiles and curly hair.  My mother used to tell me that I had a girlfriend even then.  I think her name was Shirley.  She was about my age and was the daughter of Mitzi, a good friend of my mother’s…Shirley and I often shared a stroller.  Being around women has always been easy for me thanks to those early years of being swaddled in love.

The formation of my Praetorian Guard began during Lincoln’s administration.  That’s when my grandmother, Rebeka, was born…in New York City.  She was the oldest of four.  There were three girls and a son, Louis, who became a merchant marine, and spent most of his life away from the family. My great grandfather, Louis, was a butcher with a small shop in what became the Essex Market on the Lower Eastside.  At some point in his early 50‘s he became very ill and sensed that he was going to die.  He had come to America as a young child from Iran and that’s where he wanted to die.  My great grandmother, Sarah, accompanied him.  After he died she returned to New York and continued to operate the shop with the help of my grandmother, who was taken out of elementary school, and when home, also put in charge of her younger siblings.  Sarah suffered from melancholy and my grandmother had the added burden of caring for her when that despair bore down.  Rebeka never returned to school.

Men, it seemed, weren’t needed. Rebeka married late and had four children.  Sidney came first then Gertrude, Miriam and Adele, my mother.

As the youngest my mother was less burdened with household responsibilities and this bit of extra freedom nurtured her entrepreneurial spirit.  At 15 she was working in a sportswear shop on 5th Avenue and Forty-Second Street.  By 16 she was managing the shop and buying for inventory. The money she made went towards the family’s support.  “Michael, when I was your age I was working full time.  Every day I’d take the train from Brooklyn to Grand Central and walk the rest of the way, no matter if it was snowing or raining.  It’s time you got a job.” Her older sister, Gertrude worked alongside my grandmother and in the early years looked after her two younger sisters.

My mother’s early shop experience shaped the rest of her life and a large part of mine.  It began out of the need for survival.  The Great Depression was looming and if her mother and three siblings were going to survive, my mother’s financial contribution to the family was vital.  It also got her out of the house and into the City.  My mother was driven to work hard and did so her entire life, and it was always about survival.  She saved everything from string to rubber bands and aluminum foil. In her mind if you weren’t moving you might as well be dead.

When she first went out to California in the late forties, she had already made up her mind to settle there. She wanted to get as far away as possible from my father who had become abusive and at one point began to act on a plan to kill us.  In Los Angeles mom chose a comfortable house in a predominantly Jewish neighborhood.  She taught me to rhyme the address so that I memorized it…just in case.  I can still remember it…One—three—five—four, Hauser, my voice reaching a crescendo through the numbers peaking on HAUSER.  She had also decided that with her retail experience she would open a small shop and chose Wilshire Blvd for its location, in a section of Wilshire known as the ”Miracle Mile.” The “Miracle Mile” stretched from Fairfax Avenue to La Brea.  Anchored in that mile was the May Co., Silverwoods, Meyer Siegel, Orbachs, the El Rey Theater, Van de Camps, Los Angeles County Museum of Art, and many more landmark businesses.  The shop, Mimi Lang’s Corsets and Bras, was named after my aunt Miriam. My aunt and grandmother worked there alongside my mother.  The shop was my default after-school location.  I spent many happy hours there playing with the Playtex tubular packaging and being swooned over by the customers.

At some point my mother decided that we needed a larger house and eventually found one in the neighborhood, 1302 South Curson Avenue, not far from Hauser.  It was 1952 or ‘53 and I was entering our neighborhood’s Elementary School, Burnside Avenue.    After living on a boulevard for a few years the quietude was enough to sell me.  Now I’d have my own bedroom with a door that led directly to a big backyard and a garden encircling a palm tree…

On the nights that I couldn’t fall asleep my mother would stay up reading with me. A favorite book was Goodnight Moon.  When she finished the book she would take me to the door and through the glass would point to the moon and the stars and we would repeat together the lines from the book…”Good night moon, good night stars….”  Then it was good night Mike.  There was never a night that my mother didn’t read to me.  She would assume the role of each character in the stories and adjusted her tone and accent to reflect what she thought the characters should sound like, often quite dramatically.   Eventually we moved on from Good Night Moon to A Thousand and One Nights. There was Mark Twain, whom I devoured.  A particular favorite was, A Connecticut Yankee in King Arthur’s Court. The improbable battle scenes never ceased to thrill me.  When Huck and Jim floated down the Mississippi…that’s what I wanted to do.  When Huck taught Tom how to find a lost marble by throwing another marble in the general direction of where they thought the lost marble was, while at the same time telling the airborne marble to “…go find it”; I followed that advice.   We read Kipling’s “Rikki Tikki Tavi,” and many stories from The Jungle Book.  These bedtime adventures pushed my horizons and cultivated my curiosity about the world. My mother was always looking for books and stories she thought would appeal to a small boy.  She used to say, “You got to know your customer,” and I was her best customer.

Bath time was a special occasion.  The master bathroom had both a shower and a bathtub.  It was a big room with pink and turquoise tile, and cabinets aplenty.  Against one wall was a counter with a mirror and cabinets framing the mirror going up each side of the wall.  A plush chair with a low back slipped under the counter.  This was the place for the application of cosmetics.  I would be perched on the counter, between the cabinets, while my mother cleaned my ears and brushed my hair. By this time I was usually still wet from my shower.  Even though I was maybe six or slightly older, my mother still took me with her into the shower.  These were proto-erotic moments for me.  My mother was maybe forty and had a voluptuous body.  She would soap a washcloth and gently scrub me up and down under.  My head came up to her waist and I would hold onto her to keep my balance.  My grandmother and aunt disapproved of this, but my mother gave their disapproval short shrift.

Dalton Trumbo, in a letter to one of his sons, identified a stage that preceded what Nabokov defined as the nymphet stage in Lolita. Trumbo called it the Larvine stage, a period of transformation leading to the emergence of the nymph.  When I read that letter some years ago I realized that what Nabokov and Trumbo were describing also applied to boys.  My Larvine year was spent in the shower with my mother and all that soapy wetness. As a teenager I found myself in similar situations with older women.  Emerging sexuality is a driving force toward group identification.  What group was I heading towards?  With so many formative years in the exclusive company of women I felt naturally drawn towards them. Connecting with women became intuitive. It was as though we shared a common consciousness.  One so deeply internalized that I never paid much attention to the reality that I was a women’s man until I was almost at middle age.

My aunt Miriam was tall and thin and socially awkward.  Prim to a fault, she unwound playing golf. Though in her youth, both she and my mother were avid horseback riders.  (There are a few pictures of the two of them astride their mounts, properly attired, at the old Claremont Stables on west 89th street in New York City.  They could have been a pair of fifth-generation WASPs.)  Miriam provided a check to my mother’s exuberances.  They would sometimes get into arguments that quickly turned into screaming matches. When things got too loud their mother, my grandmother Rebeka, would wade into the action and attempt to calm her girls down.  Mostly this worked.  My grandmother had an iron will. She was a taciturn sort most of the time, however when she took up the reins she did so with an authority that always owned the room she was in, which was usually the kitchen.  She insisted it be kept kosher which meant that there were two sets of everything.  We did have two sinks and I’m not sure if we had two stoves or not.  In my baby pictures, where I am sitting in her lap–squirming really–she looks like a holdover from the nineteenth century.  Her hair was full, but shortish and she had a white streak running front to back from the left side of her forehead. Blouses were buttoned up to the neck and her sturdy shoes featured large heels and oxford-style toe boxes.  They were always lace-ups and always black.  The Model T of matronly footwear.

When my grandmother took control of the kitchen she moved with a determination that reflected command coupled with expertise.  Our local butcher provided live chickens and turkeys.  When my grandmother returned from shopping there, with the freshly killed bird she had selected, the carcass still required some basic preparation before it could be cooked, roasted usually.  I often helped her pluck the remaining quill stubs and cleaned out the body cavity of the giblets that would go into the soup, occasionally finding an unhatched egg.  As far as I could tell, my grandmother never resorted to cookbooks.  Her recipes emerged from her head tailored to whatever ingredients were available.  To my grandmother cooking was process.  It was only several years later that I learned the reason she didn’t consult cookbooks was that she had never learned to read.

Miriam retained much of my grandmother’s formality.  She dressed very conservatively and when she sat down at her typewriter or with her stenographer’s pale green notebook–the one that was spring-hinged at the top and divided down the middle vertically–it was all business.  Posture perfect she would take my dictation or type my papers–anything to get me to do my school work.  Miriam, always the check that balanced my mother in our family’s political dynamic, could still be a soft touch when i asked her to share her secretarial expertise.  For homework, my aunt served as my personal secretary.  She would take dictation and type my papers if I asked.  Her editorship was top notch.  For less formal writing my mother could translate feelings into very direct language.

The fact that I was living with three single women probably contributed to my sense of independence.  Although I did enjoy a certain emotional intimacy with them, it was clearly not the same as I might have gotten were there a father or another man in the picture.  None of the women in my family acted much like the other mothers in my neighborhood or like the stereotypical ones on TV.

The perks of growing up in a Jewish, all-women family were many.   My meals were always prepared, my room was always cleaned, my clothes and bedding always ironed.  I was looked after lovingly. We had one of those “mangles”; a type of commercial ironing device that featured a turning drum clamped into an ironing frame.  You fed in the item to be ironed with the seams aligned and presto.  I can still picture my grandmother sitting there doing sheets and pants.  My grandmother was the key. Ours was a very well run house.  This enabled my mother to manage her properties and my aunt to hold a full-time job.  The rituals that underpinned the kosher elements of our house also provided a kind of schematic for maintaining a general order.

The invisible elephant in the room was a man.  Periodically my mother would fret about the lack of male influence on me.  Her solution was to enroll me in a program, Jewish Big Brothers, and so I had a “big brother” for a while, but he and I didn’t make the connection that my mother knew I needed.

When I was ready to matriculate to junior high school my mother decided to move again.  This time she bought a property in the Hollywood Hills across from Universal Studios on Cahuenga Pass.  Our house was at the top of a hill and there was an apartment beneath our house and four detached two bedroom cottages with their own backyards that descended in a line down from the peak on which our house was perched.

It was a big property, so big that my mother decided to build a six unit apartment building on a vacant part of the land.  It was a very ballsy move.  She knew nothing about building, about construction, about real estate finance.  She had a high school education.  Miriam had managed secretary school and my grandmother was mostly illiterate. After the building was well under way, Mom decided that we ought to have a swimming pool.  I remember that there were some questions from my aunt and grandmother…A pool was rather luxurious.  My mother persevered.  It was a classic, kidney-shaped pool, and included a diving board.  It was started in the very early spring and when the rains came before it was finished, there was the hole in the shape of a kidney, set with a lattice of rebar, the entire deep end filled with mud.  My mother and I traded turns filling buckets with muck and pulling them up by rope. This was my introduction to truly hard physical work.  After the pool was finished it became my job to keep it clean and chemically balanced.  My mother did most of the work required for maintaining the property.  This included painting and decorating, carpet laying and some of the yard work.  She even furnished some of the units. This furnishing business gave my mom reason to shop at garage sales, thrift stores and in the classifieds of the local newspapers.  Buying and selling things became a sideline of hers. When the inventory grew beyond our property’s large carport’s capacity and Miriam’s objections to the appearance of all that stuff piling up grew louder, my mother would rent a storefront in North Hollywood or Studio City and so was founded, “The As Is General,” and, later, “The Rummage Bin.” Thinking about all the work now, I realize that my mother was always on the lookout for a good deal, a bargain, an opportunity. Her motto was, “Good used is better than cheap new.”  If something needed a bit of repair she did it, whether it was furniture, clothing, or vacuum cleaners.  Nothing intimidated her.  Once for her birthday I gave her a new hammer and set of screwdrivers.  She was always ready for the next uptick in her life.  This restlessness and willingness to take on projects was passed down to me.  She could have stopped any time and grown rich just waiting for the population and property values to increase but she lived forward.

In my house full of women I was learning about interplay between mental and physical pleasure.  Watching women work from my earliest age I noticed how most of what they did seemed to be composed of small units of intention that over time became large assemblies of ideas manifest as things.  My grandmother prepared meals this way.  One step at a time, like an assembly line of acts at the end of which dinner was served…to me.

Women’s ways of surviving drove the development of my patterned ways of thinking and moving through life. My women learned to dance through this hard world by watching others and became masters of sidesteps.  I focused on avoidance before engagement.  How did I learn to routinely break the patterned way of life?  What was it about this unitizing of work by the women raising me that presented itself as a major source of pleasure?  It wasn’t group driven but was instead individuated.  A movement from pleasure to pleasure.  The rate of this movement was very different from the rate at which most of the men and boys I knew moved.  Men seemed to seek pleasure away and women sought it near.  It is only now that I’ve begun to think about these things as age draws me toward solitude.

As far back as I can remember my grandmother was inside.  For her, each task had a beginning, a middle and an end, much like Maria Montessori’s ideas for educating children. From morning until night she worked.  Besides me she had my mother and my aunt, to look after.  There was never any question of who was at the top of the familial order. While my mother and aunt were independent, they were also, to a significant degree, under my grandmother’s thumb. My grandmother always looked the part. Her posture was stiff and erect, her hair coiffed close, thick and rich, her dress almost Victorian.  She exuded a power that you didn’t argue with…an authority to be respected.

In 1962 my grandmother died.  She had lived from the Civil War, both World Wars, through the Korean War, past the Cuban Missile Crisis and into Vietnam.  My grandmother had literally seen it all and hardly ever lost her cool.  As her end came closer she grew increasingly blind, this after finally learning to read.  Despite that she never stopped working.  So much of what she’d done on a daily basis for nearly her entire life, she just kept on doing until one day she called it quits.  Shortly thereafter she closed her eyes for the last time.   It was only after she died that I recognized the scale of her power and authority by the hole it left in my family.  It was like some glue that had held things together had dissolved, and my mother, aunt and I were suddenly adrift.