When I was about eleven, I was a good but not great baseball player. I was an exceptional fielder – graceful, even – but only passable at the plate. In hindsight, I imagine much of my problem with hitting was not technique or skill, but confidence. At eleven, I did not believe in most any ability I had in life, hitting emphatically included. I think the only strengths I would have been willing to admit then were scooping up grounders and turning double plays.

All of this said, I was probably about a .280 hitter, which isn’t terrible, especially for an eleven-year-old in a Brooklyn league where foreign-born, over-aged ringers pretty much had the lock on pitching (we had one on our team – a Dominican kid named Pedro who didn’t speak a lick of English and threw so hard that nobody wanted to catch him). But I always felt nervous at the plate, uncertain. I liked running the bases but dreaded actually swinging the bat, and became pretty good at working out walks. That would have been a more important skill if I were fast, but I was not fast. A good, prudent baserunner, but not fast.

I remember a game in May, reaching the final inning around twilight, in which I was 0 for 2, having struck out and grounded out in my first at-bats. I came up with one out and a man on second, and we were down by a few runs. The light was not good for hitting, with shadows sprawling haphazardly across the field, and I took the first pitch on principle. I was hoping for a walk as always, but it was a letters-high strike that seemed to shimmer through the gathering darkness, not just unhittable, but practically unseeable. The next pitch was in the dirt and easy to take – I could see from when it left the kid’s hand it would be low, so I cocked my whole body like I was ready to pounce on it, then made a show of letting it go with disgust, leaning on my front foot and flexing my forearms. After that I fouled one off without thinking – I probably should have let it go, but I didn’t want to look like I was afraid to swing.

All the while, the catcher had maintained that classic patter that catchers do – half intelligible, repeated, meaningless mantras to soothe the pitcher: “Lay it in there lay it there, there ya go, nice and smooth, here we go, here we go,” gentle and regular like the way you rub a crying child’s back to calm him down. I didn’t pay it any mind, not because I was so cool at the plate, but because I was too wound up even to notice. But once they had two strikes on me, the kid started saying, “Easy out, easy out, you got this guy, easy out,” and I knew that he knew that I had made out my first two times to the plate. We were baseball kids and we cared about that stuff and kept track, and tried to remember players not just from inning to inning but from game to game – or that’s what I thought, anyway; I thought the kid had made me for a light-hitting shortstop who was not a threat, and for some reason, in that instant it drove me absolutely crazy. I was not one to look for fights, but I wanted to turn around, drop my bat, and belt the kid.

But just then the pitcher came over his shoulder with the pitch, and right when it was at the top of its arc, still in his fingers and being forced downward and to my right, the last ray of the sun picked out that grass-stained thing like a spotlight in a darkened theater and after that I never lost it. I watched it go from there, hovering in front of left center field, down and across my left shoulder, heading toward the outside part of the plate with a haphazard sort of spin and just glowing. And suddenly, everything was firing on all cylinders: my chest and my shoulders and my legs all got together and brought the bat around like a perfect reflection of the ball, like two dancers running toward each other at breakneck speed from either end of the stage, but you know you’re watching something choreographed, so they’re not going to crash into each other like two dumb kids on a playground, they’re going to spring perfectly into some kind of embrace or harmony. And I met that pitch perfectly, knee-high and an inch in front of the plate, and sent it right back where it came from, up over the pitcher’s right shoulder and four feet above the shortstop, strong and beautiful and unmistakably destined for the gap in left center field, the platonic ideal of a double.

The ball bounced confidently and fast the first time, then lower, and had slowed enough by the time the center fielder reached it that he picked it up barehanded and walked it halfway to second base. A faster runner might have stretched it into a triple, but it didn’t really matter – the run scored, the next batter walked, and then someone grounded into a double play to end the inning and the game. But when that ball jumped off my bat into the darkness, like a scripted answer to what the catcher had said, better than a punch or a sneer or a spitwad or a “fuck you,” I was in baseball heaven.

Most relationships after a certain age begin with a body or two under the bed.Usually these are ex-lovers, whose legacy manifests tangibly in shoeboxes of old letters and photos, those morbid and sentimental curations that pulse faintly from the closet shelf.Or maybe they are the specters of bad parenting, grade school bullies, criminal records, actual deaths, and surely, in some rare cases, actual cadavers. In my case, it took the form of a garbage bag full of S&M equipment.

When I was about to publish my novel, Banned for Life, I had a number of exchanges with Jonathan Evison, whose counsel I sought with regard to promotion, among other matters. He was aware of certain aspects of my past, and he advised me to be forthcoming about them, since to do otherwise, he said, would amount to breaking faith with readers.

Jonathan is a wise man, but I regarded Banned as my child, and so wanted to shield it from the sins of its father. I imagined dismissive reviews based less on the book and more on my rap sheet, as well as sneering remarks posted on message boards. Paranoia? But I’ve been the target of such remarks, and I wanted to give Banned a running start before falling on my sword.

Now, I figure, the time has come. Banned has barely been noticed since it appeared more than six months ago, and I’ve tested the waters with friends made since, and none have responded as feared.

Age of Innocence

By J.E. Fishman

Essay

My daughter will be eight years old in three weeks and she’s convinced she knows with great precision how the entire world works.

“Gay means a boy likes a boy or a girl likes a girl,” she announces with confidence one day.  “And what’s the word for the regular way again?”

“Straight,” I tell her.

“Oh, yeah.  Right.”

“How does a woman get pregnant?” I ask another time.

Her shrug says, duh.  “She gets married.”

One August afternoon, we took her for lunch to Peanut Butter and Company by NYU.  My wife and I shared an Elvis Presley — peanut butter, banana, honey, and bacon on grilled bread.  My daughter had peanut butter and marshmallow fluff.  We expected a big smile, but the bread slices were huge and the sandwich didn’t thrill her.

She’s peanut butter jaded, I thought.  Wait till she’s in college and missing the comforts of home.  With NYU students coming and going around us, I had another thought and raised the subject of profanity.  I requested a verbal rogue’s gallery, awaiting the forbidden list that I imagined she was already exchanging with friends.

My daughter scrunched her face and blushed.  “I don’t want to say, because, you know, they’re bad words.”

But even her sainted mother was urging her on.  I guess the summer before third grade seemed like a good time to assess her moral dissolution.

“You know,” my daughter said, “there’s the S-word…”

I nodded.  “What’s the S-word?”

She rolled her eyes and whispered: “You know, Daddy.”  Dramatic pause.  “Stupid.”

“Of course!  The S-word is Stupid.”  I breathed.  “What else?”

“It’s bad to hold up this finger.”  She couldn’t extend it all the way, though.  It was too bad.

“Why?  What does it mean?”

We were on the edge of our seats, waiting to hear THE WORD.

She said, “I don’t know what it means exactly, but it’s like sending a bad message to God.”

My wife changed the subject and we walked from Peanut Butter and Company with unexpected parental satisfaction, even, one might say, a certain giddiness.

We live in Delaware.  But in the West Village, where we keep an apartment, there are sights and sounds that don’t discriminate between world-weary old ears and innocent young ones.  There are still some explicit video stores around, for example, shops in the Village that sell sex toys and the kind of lingerie you don’t see in the Victoria’s Secret catalog — at least, not in the edition that comes to my house.  My daughter walks by them in sweet oblivion.

There are gay and lesbian bars, of course.  When we see the patrons spilling out onto the sidewalk, my daughter never asks why someone forgot to invite the opposite sex.

With some frequency we also pass a certain S&M shop on Christopher Street, and the window displays don’t resemble anything from Cartoon Network or recall any of London Tipton’s adventures on “The Suite Life of Zach and Cody.”  We quicken our steps whenever we pass that store, but one day, I know, the leather-clad mannequins will cry out to my daughter through the plate glass.

Then there are the real live people on the street.  We were in town the morning of Stonewall’s fortieth anniversary.  Crossing Hudson after brunch, we passed close to a pair of heavily made up, strapping, broad-shouldered drag queens in heels and boas.  My daughter didn’t even lift an eyebrow, and not because we’ve had that conversation.

Speaking of drag queens, a week after our curse-word review at Peanut Butter and Company, we went to see Billy Elliot on Broadway, in which a couple of boys cross dress and the lead character’s family accuses him of being “a poof.”

My daughter is rather sophisticated when it comes to stories, having seen and analyzed every Disney show and read most age-appropriate bestsellers.  She sat riveted and only asked one or two questions during the performance.  None of these questions featured the word “poof.”

At intermission, she declared that she already liked the show so much she wanted to return with a friend.  Her mother and I looked at one another.  The script is laced with the word “fuck” — pronounced “fock” by actors playing British miners — and there are some shits and a shite in there for good measure.

I said, “We’ll have to check with your friend’s parents first, because some parents might object to the bad words.”

Astonished, she wondered.  “What bad words are in this show?”

But the whole script didn’t go over her head.  She was conversant with the story when we discussed it afterwards.  And days later she recalled in great detail the opening of Act II and asked me to remind her what the closing scene of Act I had been.  Yet certain words just didn’t seem to register.

We took the subway home to the West Village late that afternoon.  Walking down Eighth Avenue, we came to a gas station on the corner of Thirteenth Street.  At that very moment, a yellow cab pulled out, the driver looking back at the station through his side view mirror and flipping someone the bird.  Before he departed, he half turned and shouted, “You don’t have one!”

My daughter was all ears.  Naturally, she had some questions about what just transpired.

“He’s angry at someone,” my wife said curtly.

That wasn’t good enough.  “Why did he say, ‘you don’t have one’?”

I clarified: “Probably the other guy said something unflattering about a member of his family.”

“About who?” my daughter wanted to know.

“His mother,” I said.

She took my hand.  “What about his mother?”

I gathered myself.  “Some people think the worst thing you can say to someone is to insult his mother.  Probably, someone at the gas station said something in anger about the cab driver’s mother and the cab driver wanted to say something worse back.  So he said the other guy didn’t have a mother.”

My wife acknowledged this verbal dexterity with an enthusiastic nod.  Wrapped it up, I thought, patting myself on the back.  Put a bow on it.

But my daughter frowned, unsatisfied.  She pressed:  “Like what would you say about someone’s mother?”

We were heading west, not far from the Meatpacking District and the Standard Hotel, which is currently famous for the free peep shows that some guests are providing to strollers along the new High Line Park.

To remind you, we had just come from a show that featured a boy whose best male friend sported women’s clothes, was accused of being gay because he wanted to dance ballet, and used more F-words than a trucker in heavy traffic.  And, I might add, we were maybe four blocks from where my daughter had failed to notice the drag queen.  Wouldn’t this kid have to learn sometime?

Like most adults, I cannot recall a time when my vocabulary didn’t include the word “motherfucker.”  In this context, though, it seemed like a foreign language.

We maintained our pace.  I said, “You know, when Grandpa was a kid, one of the worst things you could say to someone was, ‘Your mother wears army shoes.’”

Just then, we came to the children’s clothing store on the next corner.  The window display was trim and bright.  No S&M equipment.  No strapping bare-chested men ready to get dirty on video posters.  No need for the F-word.

Best of all, without any effort my wife could change the subject.  When we paused to look, the word “fuck” left the corner unspoken.

Not long after that, I told my father this story.

“I hate to mess up your essay,” he said over the phone, “but ‘your mother wears army shoes’ wasn’t the worst insult you could hurl on the streets of Brownsville, Brooklyn, even when I was a kid.”

Huh.  “No shit,” I said.

I hung up before he could tell me he wears a dress.

My father’s family has been in Brooklyn since the 1600’s. Seriously. I’m pretty sure that if we had had a relative on the Mayflower, I’d know it, but we were here since soon after that. Of course that is only Dad’s side. Our other sides are pretty much Johnny-come-latelies. In any case, it was inconceivable for my Dad’s family to imagine living anywhere but Brooklyn. Forget another state, Manhattan wasn’t even in the cards. Our two aunts and their husbands and kids lived in Brooklyn. Our uncle, (horror of horrors!) was sent kicking and screaming to Pennsylvania by his company. There was practically a wake over it. One of the things my father used to say was: “If you’re not in Brooklyn, you’re camping out.”

Our family got together every single weekend for my entire childhood in Brooklyn. The parents got together over whiskey sours and the kids were sent away with Pepsi, Coke, 7up and pretzels. After we hung around in our separate groups for a while, we would all have a big dinner then the mothers would clean up and the fathers would go smoke cigarettes and then we’d go home. Each holiday was also included, in addition to the weekends. This was our extended family, all of it, and we stuck together. We earnestly stuck together.

When I was about eleven, my father announced that it was time that we visit our mother’s mother.

(She had a mother?)

This came as a shock to me and my brother. We never knew she had a mother. We discovered that she actually did have a mother and she lived in CANADA! Her mother and some of her brothers lived in Manitoba on a farm.

(She had brothers?)

(They lived on a farm?)

This was before President Eisenhower started the Interstate Highway system we have today. It took five full days to drive on two lane roads from Brooklyn to Manitoba. This was summer, and I might point out for those of you who are young, there was no such thing as air conditioning anywhere, let alone in cars.

My brother and I fought the whole way for entertainment and my father kept trying to hit us from the front seat while driving, but we had mastered the art of not getting hit in the car by wedging ourselves in the far corners where his right arm swinging and punching at us while driving couldn’t reach. One odd thing I remember is that we got turned around at some point and my mom mentioned the placement of the sun and my dad actually backed out of South Dakota. How many people can say they have done that, eh?

When we arrived in Manitoba, which is a place that is actually NORTH of North Dakota, we found my Mystery Grandmother’s farm. My mother got out of the car and walked over to this teeny, tiny, squat old lady. This person was easily 145 years old.

Then my mother started speaking in tongues. My brother and I were thoroughly flummoxed. It appeared that our mother was speaking another language, unknown to us. Understand here that no one had explained anything to us. This mystery family we had never heard of, on a mystery farm in a foreign country NORTH of North Dakota, spoke Ukrainian. My brother finally gleaned this somehow. He was a pretty good detective, and four years older than I. I just thought the whole bunch of them were possessed.

There were more surprises. My mother had ten and a half brothers and one sister. On this trip we met some of them. There were the short, squat ones and the tall, thin ones. Their stature was divided approximately in half. We didn’t know what a half a brother was, but we left that one alone because taking in the whole our mom had a family thing was more than enough to process.

My Mystery Grandmother had fingers that were gnarled up as though they were in knots. She had NO fingernails. Not one. She didn’t even look in our direction for the whole visit, which I think lasted about four days. It was as though we were not visible. She totally creeped me out. As she showed no interest in me, and there was no way to communicate with her, it was not a problem staying away from her.

We never were told anything to call her, so I will just refer to her as MG. MG’s farmhouse had no running water. There was an outhouse, replete with spiders. There was a well for drinking from and a river for doing laundry, since the well water was too hard. MG’s farmhouse had no electricity.

 

Duh. We were from the CITY. We were from BROOKLYN!

We had traveled back in time to an earlier century.

The kitchen had a wood stove in the center. In the cold weather, (and let me tell you, there is some seriously cold weather up there in Canada, and I’m pretty sure that people still live there on purpose!), the family, each with his own blanket, slept in a circle in the kitchen around the wood stove. MG had burns all up and down her hands and arms because, for reasons I never knew, she had no feeling in her hands or arms, so she would constantly be burned by the woodstove in the winter because she was unaware when she was touching the stove.

This is the only picture of MG that someone took of my mother and my father and Woody and me with her. Here it is:


After this visit, we never saw her again. If it were not for the photograph, I might have thought I imagined the whole thing.

Later, when I was an adult, my mother showed me the other picture of her. This was with my Aunt Ann, the bigger one, and my mother, the little one, and her father and mother. She was told by her sister that her father wanted a picture taken of them with his girls. There is no picture of the myriad boys. My mother was also told that her father told my grandmother to take care of the girls, that the boys could take care of themselves. A few months after this picture was taken, my grandfather died of pneumonia after helping a neighbor pull his ox out of a frozen lake. No shit.

My Aunt Ann actually thought I was great. This was new to me, since my mother thought I was a waste of space. She sent smocked dresses to me by mail, which my girls wore also and I expect my granddaughters will, too. Of course, I never knew they came from her since I didn’t know she existed at the time.

I only met my Aunt once when I was about 13. I had never been on a plane. People just didn’t fly back then. The day before we left, I went to Coney Island with some friends and, since it was overcast, I assumed I wouldn’t burn. I was wrong. My mother had picked an outfit for me that was, oddly, the exact same color as my skin. This was a time when, if you DID fly on a plane, you dressed up for the occasion. I wore a bright red suit with patent leather shoes and a little hat.

My Aunt Ann had cancer. No one told me this. (Does anyone see a pattern forming here?) She was stick thin and could not walk. She sat, crumpled, on the couch. Later, spinal cancer was mentioned, but I never really knew what closed her eyes for good. Her husband, Uncle George, carried her everywhere. They had no children and were notoriously in love. They had owned and had been running a very successful restaurant in Calgary. (The restaurant business was something I was later to learn was one way her family escaped the farm.) We spent a few days with her, while huge swaths of my skin peeled off, rather like I was molting.

Soon after we returned from Calgary, my Aunt Ann died. My Uncle George totally disappeared. The restaurant was left abandoned. The consensus is that he could not live without her and killed himself in such a way as not to be found. I always thought this was incredibly romantic when I was young. Now, I think that perhaps he could have used some support to get him through the grief, but he wasn’t about to get that from my mother’s family. We were not a supportive family, on my mom’s side. Were my dad involved, he would have stayed with Aunt Ann until she died and then stayed with Uncle George until he was able get past the grief enough to accept living without his beloved. That’s how things were done in his family. But, then, my dad was not there. Abandonment is what was done in my mom’s family.

Recently I had occasion to order a certified copy of my birth certificate. (The surprises just keep on coming.) My mother’s place of birth was listed as California. So far as I know, my mother never set foot in California. Apparently, my mother lied on my birth certificate. How’s that for weird?

 

131 Comments »

Comment by Zara Potts |Edit This
2009-05-15 14:20:39

I enjoy your family history so much Irene, but I’m always left wanting more. I would love to know how your parents met and how two people (from what I can figure out) so completely different in compassion, love and care, can presumably fall in love and get married…
And the picture with your MG, is that your mother over her shoulder?

Comment by Irene Zion (Lenore’s Mom) |Edit This
2009-05-15 14:45:31

That’s my mother with the cat’s eye glasses. At the time I couldn’t see a thing, but my brother could. (Not that we knew what we were looking at.)

This is taking me so long to type on account of my right hand tried to sever a piece of my left index finger yesterday and the bandage is pressing way too many letters that are entirely unnecessary.

Is my MG STRANGE or what? (How about my brother, on the other hand?)

I’ll get to all of it eventually. My story telling comes in strange random spurts.

Comment by Christine W. |Edit This
2009-05-15 14:25:11

I love these old photos!

Has anyone tried to find Uncle George? I wonder where he went…hmmmm…

Comment by Irene Zion (Lenore’s Mom) |Edit This
2009-05-15 14:48:00

Hi Chrisitne!

I was only 13, so I didn’t know what to do.

As far as I know, he completely vanished. it was horribly sad, now that I’m old enough to know better.

Poor Uncle George. I had two Uncle Georges, but that’s a whole other story.

Comment by George |Edit This
2009-05-15 14:31:38

You said, “My mother’s place of birth was listed as California. So far as I know, my mother never set foot in California. ” Why would she lie? How could she lie? The people who print these certificates don’t ask you where you were born; they tell you. There is a story there.

Comment by Irene Zion (Lenore’s Mom) |Edit This
2009-05-15 14:49:57

George,

What can I say?

I just ordered the certified copy and there it was.

Not only was she born in California, but her last name was spelled differently.

Maybe I’m illegal! (Don’t tell anyone!)

Comment by Melissa |Edit This
2009-05-15 15:12:20

Wow , such a boring family I have. Brooklyn does rule, however.
Now about you and getting injured. I had my turn a few years ago. remember? A friend of mine wanted to wrap me in bubble wrap. I am thinking you need the same.

Melissa

Comment by Irene Zion (Lenore’s Mom) |Edit This
2009-05-16 02:43:32

Melissa,

I would go for the bubble wrap, but it’s so HOT here! It would be way too sweaty.

(I call it “pop-it paper” and so does Victor. We always have. Perhaps it’s regional. It drives Sara crazy, cause she thinks we’re teaching her kids the wrong words.)

My family is extremely not boring, I agree.

Comment by Melissa |Edit This
2009-05-17 04:47:34

Although my grandpa was in jail for a bit… legend has is for 2 month to 2 years who knows. My great grandfather ran away to San Fransico and supposedly died in the great earthquake. Since there are no real records we do not know if that is true or not. I bet you dollars to donuts though if there is a list , he is the only Goldstein on it.

(Comments wont nest below this level)

Comment by Irene Zion (Lenore’s Mom) |Edit This
2009-05-17 05:53:49

Whoa!
What was your grandpa in jail for? This is tasty!
Poor great grandpa!

Comment by melissa (irene’s friend) |Edit This
2009-05-17 07:52:20

If you heard Grandpa tell it , his brother set him up. They were in business together , Grandpa went to jail for extortion.
Now they say what comes around goes around, my great grandfather ran away from his family to San Fran and died in the earthquake. Hmmm, Karma?

Comment by Irene Zion (Lenore’s Mom) |Edit This
2009-05-17 10:14:55

Melissa,

It sounds like Great Grandpa got what was coming to him!

did your grandpa ever get back at his brother? Some brotherly love there!

Comment by Sara Zion |Edit This
2009-05-15 16:42:20

hey!
you left out the part about City Girl wanting to cuddle the piglets…
i like that part!

Comment by Irene Zion (Lenore’s Mom) |Edit This
2009-05-16 02:56:22

Oh yeah! Thanks Sara!

I was wandering around the farm and I found a pen full of the sweetest, pinkest baby piglets, so I climbed over the fence to cuddle them. (I always have been a sucker for animals.)

The next thing I new my mother was flying over the fence, grabbing me and hurling me and then herself out of the pen.

City girls don’t know that the 350 pound sow is not happy with people cuddling her babies.

I used to think it was the only sign ever that she cared about me, but actually now I think that she did it because my father really liked me and he would have been angry at her if I’d been attacked and possibly eaten by an angry sow.

When NANA was living a block from us at the ritzy retirement community she did a similar thing for Lenore. Lenore went down to the lake to pet the swans, but they had recently laid a clutch of eggs and were not friendly. My mother booked her skinny body down the hill and snatched up Lenore right before the swan attacked.

I was surprised for two reasons. First, birds have no teeth, so how bad could a bite or two be? My mother explained that when she was growing up they had attack swans to warn them when someone was on the farm. They made lots of noise and their bites really do hurt. Remember, we were the city people.

Second, my mother only liked Lonny out of all five of my kids. It amazed me that she snapped up Lenore from the jaws of danger. Perhaps it would have looked bad to her fellow retirees to allow her granddaughter to be attacked.

Comment by Sara Zion |Edit This
2009-05-16 04:26:22

maybe it was the messiness factor?
think of all the paring that would be necessary if you (or lenore) had significant injuries from the pig (or swan)… plus, the bleaching, and ironing, and sewing… it would take all day! how irritating!

(i admit, i’m hamming it up a little– i really do think she loved and even liked all of us, including you. she was just, well, nana, and had a hard time showing affection. but in the end, she didn’t want her daughter or her granddaughter to be eaten by a quasi-domesticated animal, even if you two girls should’ve known better in the first place and could’ve used a lesson-learning!)

(Comments wont nest below this level)

Comment by Irene Zion (Lenore’s Mom) |Edit This
2009-05-16 05:01:09

You think so, Sara? I hope that’s true.

For those of you who don’t get the reference Sara is referring to, you could go here and see:

http://www.thenervousbreakdown.com/izion/2008/09/why-my-brother-has-ten-fingers/

Comment by Zara Potts |Edit This
2009-05-16 11:11:07

It’s true… Swans are scary, nasty creatures. I got bitten by a black swan when I was about six. They terrify me now. I’ve never been the same since…

(Comments wont nest below this level)

Comment by Irene Zion (Lenore’s Mom) |Edit This
2009-05-17 10:16:31

I can’t understand how I didn’t learn swans were dangerous until I was an adult.
sometimes I think my brain is on vacation when I’m supposed to be learning things, Zara!

Comment by Melissa |Edit This
2009-05-17 04:56:30

I did get bit by a duck, when I was aobut 5. Lollipop farm on Long Island. We have it the bite and my screaming (well not really since there was no sound then) in a movie. Nasty duck, my mom said it was after me the entire time.

(Comments wont nest below this level)

Comment by Irene Zion (Lenore’s Mom) |Edit This
2009-05-17 05:55:38

Oh, Poor Melissa,

When you’re five you are so trusting.
You see a fluffy duck and go over to it and it ATTACKS you.
So wrong.
So very wrong.

Comment by Sara Zion |Edit This
2009-05-15 16:46:24

also, you can totally tell that MG is has mangled hands. i wonder how she
beat herself up, so?
it’s not all that easy to lose *all* of one’s fingertips. do you think she might have had leprosy? or just many years of repeated frostbite? or renaud’s? or similar knife-handling skills as her granddaughter?

Comment by Irene Zion (Lenore’s Mom) |Edit This
2009-05-16 03:03:16

Sara, I know! Even from far away you can see that they are HUGE. I think it was a combination of rheumatic arthritis, and Renaud’s, both of which she passed along to NANA. Also I’m sure repeated burns were a factor.

I don’t think she was missing her fingertips, I think she was just missing her fingernails. But now that you say that, perhaps she was missing them. Lord knows frostbite where it gets 50 below on a regular basis in the winter and living in a house with no heat didn’t help. She had to do the laundry at the river, remember? You still have laundry in the winter and there were scores of children there dirtying up clothes. Plus, again, the repeated burns.

Any ideas why she had no sensation in her hands and arms?

I never heard of any leprosy, but then, I wouldn’t have, would I?

Comment by Sara Zion |Edit This
2009-05-16 04:30:21

sort of looks like her fingers might have been congenitally webbed…
google medical images of congenital finger webbing or “lobster claws.” i’ll bet you’ll find some. poor gal. but i’ll bet growing up with significant malformations toughened her for a life of early widowhood in manitoba with 952 kids to support. i’ll bet she was a tough old bird.

(Comments wont nest below this level)

Comment by Irene Zion (Lenore’s Mom) |Edit This
2009-05-16 05:02:40

But, Sara,

WHY didn’t she have fingernails, or did she actually not have finger tips?

And WHY were her arms and hands numb to pain?

Comment by Lenore |Edit This
2009-05-16 09:41:14

OH MY GOD! we have a flipper-person as a family member!

omg omg omg

i am so excited…i feel like i’m a character in Geek Love!

Comment by Irene Zion (Lenore’s Mom) |Edit This
2009-05-16 12:22:26

Lenore!

You are jumping to conclusions here. She had terrible rheumatic arthritis and Reynaud’s and she was badly and repeatedly burned.
You don’t know because no one does!

Comment by Irene Zion (Lenore’s Mom) |Edit This
2009-05-16 16:51:46

HOLY MOTHER OF GOD!

I am trying to comment on Sara’s last post , but I can’t even get close to it.

I never noticed my MG’s hands in the picture where she was young!!!

They are ENORMOUS!

I think she DID have “Lobster Claws!”

Whoa.

This is going to take some getting used to.

Comment by lonny |Edit This
2009-05-17 12:05:36

wow

great grandma had sweet lobster claw flipper hands

that is super cool

Comment by Irene Zion (Lenore’s Mom) |Edit This
2009-05-18 05:58:02

Seriously,
Does anyone understand why my children think that this deformity is a cool thing?
I’m stumped here.

Comment by Lenore |Edit This
2009-05-15 18:03:29

i love that nana pretended to be from california. but i’m pretty sure she was diagnosable as paranoid personality disorder, so it seems like that might have had something to do with it. crazy old lady.

do you ever think about how gross it is that you were in her womb?

by the way, i never knew anything about any of this, either. so no one tells me anything, either. i wish someone had taught me to speak russian or some eastern european language.

our family is weird.
you write about it with such fluidity though!

Comment by Irene Zion (Lenore’s Mom) |Edit This
2009-05-16 03:10:51

Lenore,
How in hell could I have taught you Ukranian when I only heard it for four days when I was 13?

Dad could have taught you Russian, I suppose, but he was pretty busy trying to work to support his enormous family, and making sure you did your homework.

I would have taught you Italian, if I had remembered it. I did teach you some French. We sang French songs, remember?

Only YOU would ask if I thought how gross it was to be in her womb. All I know about that part is that she didn’t want to gain weight, so she didn’t. No one could tell she was pregnant. It’s amazing that I wasn’t damaged in some obvious way. (On the other hand, the birth certificate I just got actually just has dotted lines for my weight. Could it be that I weighed nothing?)

Duh. Of course she was nuts.

Comment by Irene Zion (Lenore’s Mom) |Edit This
2009-05-16 03:45:04

Lenore,
Now that I look at the picture, I don’t think I could have been thirteen. I look much younger. Maybe I was ten or eleven. My brother is four years older, how old does he look to you?
MG does look 145, though, eh?

(Comments wont nest below this level)

Comment by Lenore |Edit This
2009-05-16 09:44:13

you look ten or eleven there to me.

seriously, like we’re straight from Geek Love. maybe you were actually three there and you just looked ten or eleven cause you were a freak.

this is so exciting.

Comment by Irene Zion (Lenore’s Mom) |Edit This
2009-05-16 12:23:33

People in glass houses shouldn’t throw stones, Lenore!
(FREAK!)

Comment by Irene Zion (Lenore’s Mom) |Edit This
2009-05-16 16:33:23

Lenore,

I think it’s time you knew.

All five of you were born with little stubby tails that came to a point. Each of you had different patterns in your fur. Some of you had stripes, some speckled, some with spots. The doctors all said we had to remove them or you would be scarred for life.
I really sort of regret it, they were utterly adorable little tails.
(But. What’s done is done. We just have to go on.)

Comment by Lenore |Edit This
2009-05-16 18:20:57

now it’s like i’m the MAIN CHARACTER of Geek Love!
you know this is my favorite book.
you know all of this makes sense now.

Comment by Irene Zion (Lenore’s Mom) |Edit This
2009-05-17 03:56:48

Good to find your rightful place in life.

Comment by Irene Zion (Lenore’s Mom) |Edit This
2009-05-17 10:20:50

Lenore,

I am very much afraid that if you look closely at her left hand in particular, both when she was young and when she was old, it looks just like ectrodactyly.
I think Sara is right again!
I think I just WANTED her to be wrong about this one cause it’s so totally discomforting!

Look for yourself:

http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Ectrodactyly

Comment by lonny |Edit This
2009-05-17 12:26:25

i think we can all agree that you are both freaks

doesnt that make everything better?

Comment by Irene Zion (Lenore’s Mom) |Edit This
2009-05-18 06:01:18

Wait.
Lonny, who so you refer to when you say “both”?

I am turning into a dithering idiot over all this.

Comment by jmb |Edit This
2009-05-15 18:05:49

See, this stuff if tricky and those who try to write
(and arent we all trying to write?)
(Who has actually written?)
know how difficult it is to tell a story like this
in a manner that moves the reader along the page.
This Irene, she’s crafty and capable.
Surely her husband is blessed among men.

Comment by Irene Zion (Lenore’s Mom) |Edit This
2009-05-16 03:16:50

James Michael Blaine,

It is true that I am always trying to write and have never actually written. I just keep editing things over and over and I guess when I just get sick of it I finally post. But I still want to make changes. Always.

My husband is a blessing.
I am blessed among women.

Comment by Kate |Edit This
2009-05-15 20:22:43

Your dad’s family sounds exactly like both sides of my family. Ben finds this whole extended family thing very strange.

I am really angry that my grandpa never taught my dad or any of us Swedish. It would be really cool if I were bilingual, though I would prefer a more useful language than Swedish.

Comment by Irene Zion (Lenore’s Mom) |Edit This
2009-05-16 03:24:46

Kate,

We would have had an extended family thing if we could have, but Victor is an only child and all his relatives are gone. I only have my elusive brother and he has no children and barely ever appears. All the rest of my relatives are gone too.

But Ben forgets that we constructed an extended family from our amazing and wonderful friends. They were better than family. We got to pick each other.

If you knew Swedish, you would be close to learning all the other languages in the area. Norwegian, Finnish and whatever you call the language from Denmark. (I’m blanking out here.)

I don’t think it would help much with Estonian, Latvian and Lithuanian though. I may be wrong, but I think they are based differently.

Comment by Kate |Edit This
2009-05-16 16:21:21

Ben seems to have forgotten his entire childhood, from what I can gather.

Danish, Norwegian, and Swedish are all really similar, but I think Finnish is actually more closely related to Latvian, Lithuanian, and Estonian. It’s not really very Scandinavian at all.

(Comments wont nest below this level)

Comment by Irene Zion (Lenore’s Mom) |Edit This
2009-05-17 04:03:32

Kate,

When we were in Turkey, we were told that, odd as it may sound, Turkish is closely related to Finnish and Hungarian.

People are always asking me for directions.

My body language must exude confidence. Or maybe it’s my face: steel-eyed determination successfully masking utter cluelessness. Then again, maybe not, because a blind office worker once asked me to guide him to his building from Grand Central Station.

Really. I kid you not.

Two previous generations of my family hail from New York and my sister was born in Brooklyn Heights. My brother and I were the only two schmucks born in Florida (and not even Miami!).

“Are you Jewish?”

Believe it or not, I get asked that a lot.

Yesterday, the second day of Rosh Hashanah, a pair of Lubavitchers approached me on the street, shofar in hand, and mumbled under their breath (as they do):

“AreyouJewish?”

I stopped.

“Why do you want to know?”

The young man, adorned with a scraggly beard and side locks said nothing, but a tiny smile raised from the corners of his mouth. He waved over a third Lubavitcher, an older gent, from across the street as if to say: “We got one!”

Our mini-minyan was in place.

Black Hat #1 opened his siddur and pointed me where I should begin to read the blessing.

With an apologetic smile, I said, “I’m sorry. I can’t read Hebrew.”

“Then you can repeat after me.”

So I did.

Baruch atah Adonai Eloheinu Melech Ha’Olam, asher kidishanu b’mitzvotav v’tzivanu leshoma kol shofar.  Baruch atah Adonai Eloheinu Melech Ha’Olam, shehechiyanu v’kiyimanu v’higianu la’zman ha’zeh.”[1]

Then Black Hat #2 began to blow.

A few minutes and 100 varied blasts later, we all wished each other L’shanah tova and I went on my way to the Red Hook IKEA.

* * * * *

“But are you Jewish?”

My great-grandparents were married in Northern Poland, near the ever-changing Lithuanian border, in 1915.

A few years later, Walter and Sophia Wayner were America’s newest Polish Catholic immigrants. They settled in Connecticut and soon after, my first-generation American grandmother, Edith Stephanie, (aka “Georgie”) came along.

She converted from Catholic to Anglican to marry my grandfather, Ralph, and they had six kids, one of whom is my father, who converted from Anglican to Catholic after marrying my devoutly Catholic mother.

Every year, Dad and I shop for my mom’s Christmas presents together. It’s our annual “Daddy-Daughter Day”; a tradition we’ve had for as long as I can remember.

My mother gives us a list that usually looks like this:

  • Clinique perfume
  • Jewelry
  • New nightgown
  • Latest Danielle Steele novel
  • L’eggs (Suntan)
  • Peanut M&Ms
  • Gum

A few years ago, I thought I would mix it up and break my mother out of that darn Danielle Steele rut. I thought she might get a kick out of Carl Hiassen. So my dad and I were in the Barnes and Noble parking lot and just about to get out of the car when, for whatever reason, I asked him:

“What was Grandma’s last name? I mean, before they Americanized it?”

“I don’t know, Waynerowski, Waynerowitch. Something like that.”

And then under his breath he snarkily muttered,

“Polish Catholic my ass…”

I nearly gave myself whiplash.

I had just moved across the street from a hip Upper West Side Reform synagogue and Friday night people-(read: Hebraic Hottie)-watching was my new favorite pastime.

“Are you kidding me? You mean we could be Jewish? Do you know how that opens up my dating pool in New York? I can finally join JDate! That’s awesome!”

My mind began to spin with scenarios of Sephardic spooning with tantalizing ‘Tribe’smen. I had been attracted to Jewish men, culture, men, food, men, humor, men, tradition, men and men for as long as I could remember. I was ecstatic!  I could finally legitimately pepper my language with exotic words like Nu! And Oy! And Mishpocha! I would get into a schmozzle with a yenta who talked about my zaftig tuchas and how I would end up with a pisher if I didn’t cut back on the number of hamentashen I was noshing.

I would be a shiksa goddess no more.

My father looked at me with a sharp and uncharacteristically violent glare. He seethed through a clenched jaw:

“We. Are. Not. Jewish.”

It was said with such a note of finality, that I knew that I daren’t push the issue.

But boy did it get me thinking.

* * * * *

“So you’re not Jewish?”

Walter and Sophia were married during what was then, The War to End All Wars. As we all know from innumerable World History classes, just as that war ended, tens of thousands of people began to flee Eastern Europe because a small group of disgruntled German soldiers, led by a young punk named Adolf, decided the world would be a better place if it was Judenfrei.

The Jewish tradition to change one’s name after a change in nature dates back to the Biblical times when Abram became Abraham and Jacob became Israel. It’s also an old Jewish superstition to change the name of a sick man in order to “change his luck.”

So it comes as no surprise when Lev Davidovitch Bronstein became Leon Trotsky, Israel Isidore Baline became Irving Berlin and “Wojnerowicz” became “Wayner.”

They were so easily assimilated.

Does it prove that Walter and Sophia were Jewish, though? No. Of course not.

It was highly suppositional at best.

However, my father’s knee-jerk reaction did inspire me to write a film (fictional) about it.

* * * * *

When I gave an early draft of the screenplay I had written to my mother, she called me the moment she finished reading it. She was in tears. She loved it. She asked me:

“Would you like your grandmother’s menorah?”

WHAT????????????????

Turns out, Walter and Sophia Wojnerowicz-turned-Wayner had brought their “Polish candelabra” with them to America…

…and a pair of candlesticks.

My mother had salvaged them from the discard pile when they packed Georgie up and sent her to a nursing home, riddled with Alzheimer’s.

* * * * *

(Pause for me to reel once again from how weird that was…)

* * * * *

“So you are Jewish?”

I’m never sure how to answer that question anymore.

“Yes. Well, no. Actually, I don’t know. Maybe?”

When word got out that I was researching the subject, my father’s side of the family closed up tighter than a Kosher deli at three o-clock on Friday. This is a group of people who commonly refute things written by ‘those’ idiots at the ‘Jew’ York Times.

I have been forbidden to write about any other family nuggets that have leaked from my grandmother’s loosening lips as long-repressed memories are finally being released. I’m also not allowed to talk about it to my Dad or his side of the family, except as a total piece of fiction, and under no circumstances am I allowed to mention it to my grandmother.

It bothers me, though. I want to know. I’m dying to know.

Regardless of the answer, though, I don’t think it will change much for me. I’m not Religious. God knows I’ve tried all sorts of Religions (note the capital “R”) and nothing really fits. I’ve basically settled on the wagon wheel theory of God – so many different spokes bound together and all of those spokes leading to, essentially, the same place.

However…

On the one hand, it would feel amazing to have been a part of the crowds of well-dressed Jews on the banks of the Hudson on Tuesday night, as they performed the Tashlikh. It would be fun to hang with mychallah-back girls in the ‘chood. It would be a mitzvah to go down to my bubbe’s retirement home and convince the residents to vote for Obama – and to do so as part of a project so hilariously named “The Great Schlep.” (Be sure to click that link.  You owe it to yourself to watch Sarah Silverman’s video plea.  I just couldn’t make it embed itself on this page.)

But on the other hand, I don’t want to be like Seinfeld’s dentist who converts just for the jokes.

As a person who grew up extremely white and culturally devoid, I find my xenophilic tendencies overpowering at times. Maybe this is just the latest phase of my ongoing passion for the “other” and once I become a part of it, I will throw it away like so many other things before it.

And yet, I still can’t help feel that this might be something bigger than that.

* * * * *

“AreyouJewish?”

When the Lubavitchers have asked me that question in the past, outside of their Mitzvah tanks on Union Square where you can lay tefillin and pray in the park, I’ve always shaken my head and gone on my way.

I don’t know why I stopped yesterday.

Maybe it’s because I’ve been inventorying my life lately. I feel like it’s time to slow down a little, reflect on all the major changes that have happened over the past several months and start anew.

Come to think about it, it’s about this time every year that I tend to look back on things and reassess. I’ve always associated it with a new school year, I guess. Instead of stocking up on No. 2 Dixon-Ticonderogas and pristine spiral-bounds, I prefer to take stock and wipe the slate clean.

Reinvent. Rinse. Repeat.

I don’t know, maybe it is a Jewish thing.

Maybe I’m meshuggenah.

Or maybe it’s just because that Sephardic sidewalk studmeister was totally and completely



[1] Blessed are You, Lord our God, King of the Universe, who has blessed us in his commandments and commanded us to hear the sound of the shofar.  Blessed are You, Lord our God, King of the Universe, who has kept us alive, sustained us, and brought us to this season.