"It’s easy, Ma, six-six-six-six-six-six-six. You just need to remember one number.” I spoke quietly but methodically into the phone.
“Wait, start from the beginning. What’s the number?”
“I told you, ma, it’s all sixes. 666-.”
“But, what’s the first number?”
”Six, Ma, they’re all sixes.”
“Yeah. Just seven sixes in a row.”
“Six seven six?”
“NOOOOOOOOOOOO. THEY’RE ALL SIXES. JUST SIXES. JUST SIXES!
“Farshteinischt.” I don’t understand.
I was trying to give my mother the phone number for the car service that would bring her from Brooklyn to our home in Manhattan –- or “The City” as we always called it -- for our son Max’s bris. My father was going to come in his brother’s car, but there wasn’t enough room for my mother too. My husband Rob could see my growing frustration and grabbed the phone out of my hand. “Bella, the phone number is six six six six six six six. All sixes…… It’s just one number… No, it doesn’t start with one….No, they’re seven sixes in a row….. No, Bella, it’s six six six – no, Bella, I’m trying to-“
I tried to suppress my irritated giggles, but the movement in my abdomen caused the staples from my c-section to dig into my flesh. I grabbed back the phone, and screamed into it.
“MA, HOLD THE PENCIL IN YOUR HAND. YOU GOT THE PENCIL?”
“Nu, I’m holding.”
“WRITE A SIX.”
“JUST WRITE IT. DID YOU WRITE A SIX?”
“NOW, WRITE ANOTHER SIX.”
“YES, ANOTHER ONE. DID YOU WRITE IT? GOOD, now another one,” and
so on five more times.
“But it’s just sixes!”
“So, what I should bring?”
“The moyel said he needs kosher red sweet wine. Can you bring that?”
”Kosher what? I should bring something sweet? Oy, wait. My pencil broke.”
“Never mind, Ma, we got it covered. Just bring yourself and Daddy.”
Spent after the conversation, I looked around my fancy schmancy Manhattan apartment, dreading the thought of cleaning up for the bris. Jewish law mandates that the ritual circumcision take place on a healthy child’s eighth day, which was now only four days away. The apartment wasn’t so fancy schmancy anymore. It looked like a war zone. Piles of dirty dishes sat on the counter. Small plastic bags with drops of old breastmilk clinging to the insides were splayed on the coffee table. Each drop had felt like the extraction of a pound of flesh. Pumping was meant to free me from being the baby’s only source of food, but, in truth, I was terrible at it. It didn’t feel very liberating to attach the cups to what felt like my udders whenever I wasn’t actually nursing – which wasn’t very often, since I’d had to nurse every hour and a half. Even with a doula named Emily helping me half a day and Rob home on paternity leave for the first two weeks, I was a wreck. My mother offered to help, but my father had just recently been discharged from the hospital after his most recent heart attack. And besides, I didn’t want her help. What could she possibly do for me anyway?
Disparate pieces of clothing were randomly strewn across the floor, radiator, couch. Half my dessert spoons were missing; I think I tossed them in the garbage without noticing. I knew that soon Max would be up and screaming, and Emily would bring him to me and clamp him on my aching breast, reminding me to breathe in with the first chomp to lessen the pain. I couldn’t think about anything, not even how to use whatever time I had left before he woke up. I started to cry, though “cry” seems an understatement to describe the gut-wrenching sobs that passed through me like bolts of electricity. As a forensic psychologist, I’d had no problem working with murderers, drug dealers and kidnappers, but a newborn baby was a whole other matter entirely.
The books said Max would sleep for fifteen to twenty hours a day. The books lied. Five to eight hours, ten if I was really lucky. My every waking minute was devoted to keeping him moving. I couldn’t think straight. The first couple of weeks, I was somebody else. When Rob didn't clean out the refrigerator quickly enough, I yelled at him. He gently requested that I not speak to him that way again. At this perceived affront, I began to sob so hard I couldn’t hold up my head. I had to sit at the table and let my forehead flop down on it with a thud. The only part of me that moved after that was my shoulders heaving up and down with each sob.
I completely lost my identity. As a professional, as a competent person. I never was much for titles, and yet now I yearned for the days when people called me Dr. Greenstein. Sometimes, I thought of my plight like the psychologist that I had been. My training had been with adults, but I started planning my next paper on the childhood development of object permanence – the sense that objects continue to exist even when you no longer see them. I particularly was fascinated by the game of peek-a-boo – the way babies are shocked to see your face reappear from behind your hands, as if you’d disappeared the moment you’d covered your face. I started thinking about work I’d read in child psychology, Mahler, Stern, Fraiberg, and I would feel at least a little competent once again. Yes, I thought, I would make a Piagetian exercise of my motherhood and use it to advance science’s understanding of the early days of infancy as only a new mother could. Only I never wrote, and wouldn’t for a long time. I never sat down long enough to write a grocery list, let alone a scientific paper. How could I write when I couldn’t even hang onto dessert spoons?
As for the bris itself, it was yet another reminder of my fall from grace. My parents managed to arrive without incident, and the actual snipping took place without drama, or even tears. But my father was standing when he should have been sitting, and he fainted to the floor in a dramatic swoon. While the guests all sequestered themselves in another room, the paramedics rushed in. They had to report to their supervisor over their walkie talkies with my mother haranguing them at every turn. One of them was trying to tell his supervisor that my father was hypotensive.
“They’re not telling true,” my mother screamed. “He doesn’t have hypotense. HE’S NOT HYPOTENSE! He just has low blood pressure. Not high! Low!”
I explained over and over again that they were the same thing, while a cacophony of shoes shuffled out of the apartment.
* * * *
The long fall from grace came after a heavy climb in the first place. I’d grown up back in Brooklyn feeling marginal, trudging up Flatlands Avenue with legs that felt like lead. My friend Trudy would bribe me with the promise of a free chocolate frosted donut if I would accompany her to the Dunkin’ Donuts on Flatlands, and the leaden legs would trudge. I didn’t know where I was going in the larger sense, what I wanted to be, what I even thought I was capable of being. I knew only that I didn’t quite fit in to the world around me. Trudy was the one person who shared that with me, she was my “intellectual” friend. She read books by people with names that sounded bizarre to me, like Drabble and Coetzee, and she taught me about music, introduced me to the Roches and Martha and the Muffins. She was big-boned and tough and argumentative. I was little and meek and afraid of my own shadow. I claimed throughout my childhood that I was going to grow up to be a lawyer, but even that was a fantasy dominated by the spirit of Trudy. It all started when we were on the school bus in second grade when Trudy announced to the bus driver that she would grow up to be a lawyer.
“What about you, Peanuts?” I never knew why the driver called me that, but I didn’t like it and it stuck for way too long.
“I’m going to be a lawyer too.”
“Oh no you can’t,” Trudy bellowed at me. “Your voice isn’t loud enough, and you need a loud voice to be a lawyer.”
I didn’t answer, but it was set. I would show her, and I spent the next fourteen years aspiring to be a lawyer. But the day of my LSAT’s came and went on my twenty-first birthday, without my ever setting foot – with my once again leaden legs - in the testing room. Maybe Trudy was right after all– certainly, my inner voice hadn’t been loud enough to counteract the other voices telling me I couldn’t hack it. It was not a good birthday in other ways as well. My mother had forgotten it, and neither called nor sent a note. She chose to make up for this oversight by deciding it never happened. She called the next year at seven o’clock in the morning to wish me a happy twenty-first birthday, and was one year off every year after that. It would take almost twenty more birthdays before we were able to align our clocks so that she knew my correct age.
In our neighborhood, there were two ways of moving up in the world – you could be a doctor or a lawyer. There were other jobs too, of course, like accounting, or later, computer programming, but the pinnacle was medicine or law. The only debate was which was the greater profession, that is, the one with more boasting points for parents. My friend Bertha’s mother had a running argument with her sister on this exact point. It was months before they finally ended with a compromise - lawyers were smarter but doctors had to have a stronger stomach, so they were equally impressive in the end. I knew I was looking for more than a way to show up Trudy, it was more like playing professional dress-up, wearing a fancy future to impress people. Actually, there was a profession that did appeal to me, but I learned early on not to tell people. In my private moments, I wanted to be a writer, with a taste for overly dramatic and melancholic plots. But while it sounded impressive to me, it didn’t move Eastern European immigrants like my parents for whom the bottom line meant everything. Even being a lawyer wasn’t quite as useful as being a doctor: if you ever needed to escape in the middle of the night, no matter which city you ended up in, there would always be someone who needed a doctor. From that, you could always make a living.
I wanted to impress, but I didn’t want to turn into the Empire State Lady either. I never knew her real name, she was always just the Empire State Lady to us. Maybe because that was the tallest man-made object anyone could think of. I was twelve when I first set eyes on her in our bungalow colony in the Catskills. She was the talk of the bungalow colony kids, who clearly didn’t have much to talk about. She was probably in her early forties at the time, brunette, and had large but improbably high breasts. On her head was a fall, which had the appearance more of a mountain as her stiffly teased hair rose up against it around nine inches in the air, climbing climbing until it fell over behind her head like a puffy brown waterfall. And she wore, always, platform shoes that were at least six inches high. And, together with her perfectly erect spine-- which looked to have been worth at least two more inches in itself -- she looked closer to six feet tall than the barely five feet she actually was. She wore that uniform like body armor that dared not be removed, strutting awkwardly around the hilly grounds all summer that way. Being so short myself, I could relate to her, perhaps even admire her reaching, but I could never forget how ridiculous she looked. Reaching was admirable only so long as you didn’t actually look like you were reaching.
Though I fancied myself an intellectual, I never really felt that I had earned it. I didn’t read nearly as much as Trudy. I just liked thinking and talking about Very Important Things, or making up maudlin stories about ghosts of long-dead sisters or women who lost their children. My parents had no such interests, and found mine confusing and odd. Why a young girl should want to think about such things? Oh well, there was always Trudy. She could be mean and superior and dismissive, but I could always talk to her about VIT’s. Besides, I started becoming pretty superior myself, especially to my mother, who wasn’t particularly fond of rational thought in the first place. She knew it mainly as a weapon I kept in my arsenal, ready to fling at her whenever she tried to justify her gambling.
No, I didn’t gamble last night.
Besides, Daddy gambles too.
Besides, there’s nothing wrong with it. Some people go to the movies, so I like to gamble instead. What, I’m not allowed to have a hobby?
But not five nights a week, Ma, they don’t go to movies all night long, Ma.
Oy, stop hocking me already.
Not for twenty-five hours straight, Ma.
Stop hocking already. Besides, that was just once.
Just one time. That game had lasted so long, one of the regulars, Mr. Nussbaum, couldn’t remember where he’d parked his car. He walked dazedly around our neighborhood in concentric circles for hours before he found it. My mother laughed about it. I sneered. I have to get out of here, I thought.
So, I went to University of Chicago to go be an intellectual. I knew there were plenty of intellectuals in Brooklyn, but I couldn’t be one of them. I needed to reinvent myself. I studied English Literature and had many people to talk to about Chekhov and Beckett, and Faulkner and Sterne. I learned to hold my own with people who talked through immobile lips about the Derridian camp, and paradigms and discourses and paradigms of discourses and discourses about changing paradigms. And when I came back home for the summers, I was snotty as hell. About neighbors who aksked youse a question, or debated a situation’s good pernts and bad pernts. Or the guy sitting next to me at Agnes of God, while I was waxing philosophic with my friends about the symbolic meanings of the ambiguity regarding the paternity of Meg Tilly’s baby. The guy in the next seat wore a gold cross and had a pained look on his face. I wondered what he thought about the possibility that Tilly had been impregnated by God. Suddenly, with his eyes still scrunched up, he turned to his friend and yelled out, “SO, WHO KNOCKED ‘ER UP?” But I reserved most of my snottiness for my mother, whose grammar I’d correct. My whole personality seemed like a slap in the face to her. Just using who and whom correctly was a personal attack.
And I went to graduate school to get my Ph.D. in Clinical Psychology, which confused my mother because one goes to either law school or medical school, what the hell is psychology school? And I confused her still more by not taking on Rob’s difficult-to-remember last name when I married him. It’s been almost twenty years, and she still asks on occasion what my last name is and I still remind it’s the same as hers.
And here I was on the Upper West Side, a subway and a bus away from the house I grew up in, with legs that felt like lead once again. After Max’s first night home, having nursed him all night and taken turns walking him with Rob, while he screamed and jerked and refused to sleep, I rocked back and forth back and forth in his glider chair in a fog. All those accomplishments I’d racked up lay limp in my memory. The Empire State Lady without her armor. And there was my mother offering to help, like any bubbe who would jump at the chance to take care of her ainik’l. No fucking way. What could she do for me anyway? In the meantime, a part-time doula gave way to a part-time babysitter, who turned into a full-time babysitter. Every night, I’d count the minutes until she’d show up. Six hours and twenty-eight minutes, two hours and thirty-one minutes, forty minutes, fifteen minutes…. Still I felt lost – there were another sixteen hours a day to contend with, after all.
I tried to console myself by thinking of the bigger picture, wondering about the meaning of life in a newborn’s smiles, for instance. The doctors say it’s just gas but I don’t buy it. Max was smiling early on, he just wasn’t smiling at me. He had his own private joke that I would never be let in on. I was just the milk wagon. When would he love me back?
I stood awed by the miracles to which I now thought myself privy. Like the day he woke up with a big dark brownish scab on his forehead that looked like the remains of a gash right between the eyes. We tried frantically to find the cause of it – some exposed nail in the crib, maybe. But we couldn’t find anything. As we searched periodically throughout the day, we noticed that the scab already was getting smaller and smaller, healing itself into oblivion. How awesome were the healing powers of newborn skin! I spent the rest of the day in wonder at the power of my child’s tiny body, until our babysitter came in that evening. “What’s this dried mucous doing on Max’s forehead?” she asked, as she flicked the last crusty piece of it off his face.
Then, one day, terror. The sitter wasn’t coming.
“You want I should help you, maybe?” my mother asked over the phone. Oh God, I thought, but I felt too desperate to refuse help from anyone.
“Yeah, Ma. Thanks.”
“I’ll show you. It’s easy. Just put him in the carriage.”
“I tried that already, Ma. It didn’t work.”
“You’ll see. I’ll show you. You’ll sleep.”
I knew it wouldn’t help, but I was grateful even for the gesture. At least I’d have something to count down towards. When she came, I’d been walking Max for more than two hours straight, counting down the minutes until she showed. He had fallen asleep on my shoulder and woke up screaming every time I tried to put him down or even stopped moving, so I just kept walking back and forth, down the hall, through the living room, into the dining room, through the kitchen, back into the hallway, the same circuit over and over for hours. We were both in tears by the time she appeared.
“Oy vey, you look terrible, just terrible.”
“Thanks, Ma, that’s just what I wanted to hear.”
“Look, it’s easy. See? Just do like this.” She took him out of my arms. His body jerked immediately and he started to scream.
“He’s screaming, Ma. Give him back. It’s not going to work.”
“I know what I’m doing. What, like I didn’t raise two children already?”
Don’t get me started, I thought, but said nothing. I wasn’t one to talk. Not anymore. She put him in the carriage and started to jerk it forward by the handle. She was anything but gentle.
“Stop it, Ma, you’ll break his –“
But he already was quiet. She was pushing the carriage hard back and forth in the hallway. Her pushes were sharper than mine, her rhythm faster. When I took over, the crying immediately started up again. She showed me her rhythm and the crying stopped. I learned to shut up and push it her way. Then she took him out for a walk so that I could get some sleep, sort of. Once outside, she called repeatedly. “Where I can get some falafel,” was the reason for the first call. “Is laryngitis like a cold in the throat? Do I sound funny to you?” was the next. When she called again to ask if there was anything she could do for me while she was out, I had my opening.
“Yeah. STOP CALLING ME!” I yelled, yanking the cord out of the base of the phone.
She’d taken a bus and a train, traveled an hour and a half to help me, quieted down my screaming infant, and I yelled at her for doing something she couldn’t help. Then, an image popped into my head that wouldn’t leave me for a very long time. An image of a foreign and damaged woman who didn’t speak the language, with a husband who thought babies were woman’s work, a crying infant and a mother thousands of miles away. No friends, no companions, no doulas or babysitters, nothing to help her but the sheer force of her instinct to survive. I was ashamed by how stingy I’d been. The empathy I had for patients, the pity I’d showered on myself, I never could muster up for her, a woman who had suffered so much and who had so much more to offer than I’d been willing to admit. And besides all that, there really were things she was a lot more competent at than I. Very Important Things.
She was more than competent, she was reliable, the person we relied on more than anyone else beside the babysitter. Even when it came to picking the sitter. When she’d met Emily the doula, she gushed about how terrific she was with kids. But when she met our first babysitter Agatha, the most she could muster was, “she seems very clean.” Soon Agatha was boasting about how much better she was at putting Max to sleep than I, sometimes taking him from me to prove it on the spot, and constantly belittling my nursing. “Breast milk is too thin. Formula makes him strong.” She thought nothing of wasting breast milk that I’d torturously pumped. I had to drink a bottle of beer to get up the strength to fire her (besides, it was rumored to be good for breast milk production). When we found Mirelle, my mother gushed again, and Mirelle turned out to be sweet and smart and great with babies. She asked how she could be helpful while I nursed. And she knew how to teach a semi-competent new mother some tricks without making her cry.
And later, when I started working at the hospital, if Mirelle was sick, my mother woke up at five in the morning so she could babysit for her Mex’aleh. Max giggled at the mere sight of her, stretching out toward her with his whole body from the moment she came into view. She even started babysitting every weekend so that Rob and I could spend some time together. The woman who believed in evil eyes and wondered about colds in the throat, and who even thought she could find lost objects if she turned a glass upside down on a table before she started looking. I sneered at her bubbe meisses (old wives’ tales; literally, grandmothers’ stories) and she couldn’t have cared less. We just were who we were. I could appreciate her even as I remained wary of her. And I imagine she did the same with me. It didn’t matter that we still argued all the time.
A few months later, my mother was visiting one morning. I was getting dressed in the bedroom when she called me out to the living room.
“Kim aher, gib a kik, gib a kik!” Come quickly, take a look, take a look!
“What is it, what happened?” I yelled, pulling my sweater over my head as I came running.
“Look, I’m making peekaboo.”
“That’s what you called me for? Because you’re making peekaboo?”
“No, look. When I make peekaboo before, Mex’aleh liked it because he was surprised when I pull the hands away. But look now.”
She kneeled in front of Max and started to cover her face in her hands, in the classic pre-peekaboo pose, when he started to giggle with his whole body, as babies do.
“See? Now, he starts to laugh before I make with the hands. He used to like it only after I make peek-a-boo, but now he laughs because he expects it. It shows he understands more. He knows what I do next. Look how excited! Gib a kik!” And right on cue, Max displayed the next stage of object permanence for his grandmother. She giggled more than he did.
“Maybe I’m not explaining it good.”
“No, Ma. I think you explained it just fine.”