Welcome to the Family

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March 30, 2010

Mom didn’t seem like a mom anymore. She was a girl with a boyfriend. They were on the phone every night while I sat at my desk, doing my homework. I shut my door so I wouldn’t have to listen to her whispering and giggling in the hallway. But our house was small. I couldn’t get rid of the sound.

When I finished with pre-algebra, I slammed my book shut, hoping she’d hear me. I tore a sheet of paper from my notebook, enjoying the loud ripping sound. I smoothed the paper out, sweeping my hands over the blue and white lines. I wrote a note to Ruti, punctuating each sentence with a hard tap of my pen.

“It’s ridiculous,” I wrote. “She’s acting like a teenager. It’s ‘Bill this, Bill that’ all the time. I’m sick of it.”

What I didn’t write to Ruti is that it wouldn’t have bothered me if Mom was talking about my father.

One Saturday, Mom came home from her weekly run with Bill, a marathoner, with a new necklace. Instead of the chai that used to hang from her neck, she was wearing a small pendant of a jogger, mid-stride.

I didn’t say anything to her. But I touched the chai that rested on my chest, as if to note the difference. She looked back at me. The air seemed to gather between us and push us apart.

“Alma, I have something to tell you,” she said. “Bill wants me to marry him. I said yes.”

I stood up from the couch. “But I haven’t even met Bill yet. How could you make a decision like that without asking me?”

“Because I’ve got my own life to live, Alma.”

“You sound like a bumper sticker. You sound like one of those AA people. One day at a time. Easy does it. I’ve got my own life to live.” Nana was in Alcoholics Anonymous. Every time I talked to her on the phone, she peppered the conversation with little sayings she’d learned at her “meetings.” When I’d hang up and repeat them to Mom, she’d roll her eyes and say that Nana wasn’t a drunk, “She’s just bored.”

The marriage, Mom said, wasn’t just for her. She was doing it for me, too. We would move in with Bill. He had a nice home in a good neighborhood and I’d be zoned for a better high school. “And you’ll have a father,” she said.

“But I’ve got one already.”

We were standing just a few feet apart. I noticed then that I was the same height as her. But I felt like she was very far away from me.

“Don’t you want me to be happy?” she asked.

I didn’t. I wanted her to myself.

After Mom told Nana the news, she whispered my reaction into the phone.

“I can hear you,” I shouted from my room.

“So come say hello to your grandmother,” Mom said.

I put the phone to my ear and sighed.

“You are always welcome to come live with me,” Nana said. I’d been to an AA meeting with Nana once, when Mom and I had gone to visit her in Brooklyn. I imagined weekends full of decaf coffee, cookies, people with no last names, and speeches that started with, “Hi, my name is Jim and I’m an alcoholic.”

“No, thanks,” I said.

“We can talk more about it when I come down for the wedding,” Nana said. She went on for a while about a book she was reading. “It’s called Codependent No More. I think you and your mother should both read it. I got it after Richard and I broke up.”

I felt my throat tighten. Was Mom breaking up with me?

Nana went on then about her latest divorce. I clamped the phone to my ear, trying to push the tears out of my eyes.

“Is this number five or number six?” I asked.

“Five,” she said.

“I think it’s six.”

“Alma, I know how many times I’ve been married.”

I rattled the men’s names off, ticking through my fingers as I went. “That’s six,” I said.

“Fine,” Nana said. “Who’s counting anyways?”

We hung up and I went out to the kitchen. Mom was stirring the beans for burritos, my favorite. I watched her, wondering if she was going to be like Nana. Would her runner pendant be replaced with a little triangle, like Nana wore? Would our future be full of AA meetings and a row of forgettable husbands? Would I get lost somewhere in the shuffle? That would be worse than having this Bill guy around.

“Just let me meet him first. I promise to give him a fair chance,” I said.

Bill, the chef-marathoner, had us over the next day. He was nervous as he gave me a tour of the house. “This is the study, the bedroom, the hallway.” He laughed. “The hallway,” he repeated, more to himself than me.

He stopped before a closed door. “This was the guest room but soon it will be your room, Alma.”

We stood there.

“Go ahead,” he said. “Open it.”

Inside, there was a rattan dresser, a wooden desk, and a bed made with crisp white sheets. I felt a little thrill when I saw that the floor was covered with thick, beige carpet, like Ruti’s house had. We—me, Mom, and blonde-haired blue-eyed Bill—were going to be a normal family, the Wilsons. Alma Wilson.

“It’s a little bare right now,” Bill said. “But you can do whatever you want with it. It’s yours.”

We joined Mom in the kitchen. She was sitting on a stool at the island, sipping a glass of wine. She tapped a package, wrapped in blue. “This is for you, Almi. It’s from Bill.”

I tore the paper off. It was a book about the Holocaust.

“Your mom told me you’re interested in your Jewish roots,” Bill said. “It’s important to me to support that.”

I knew what Bill was doing. He was trying to make me comfortable; he wanted me to feel free in his home. And I could tell that he loved Mom and wasn’t going to be a Richard. I should have been happy.

But as I felt the weight of the book in my hands, my excitement faded. I realized the new room wasn’t mine and the house wasn’t either. Disappointment made its way down my throat, settled in my chest.

I didn’t want Bill to think of me as the Granddaughter of a Survivor, the strange girl who hid in the guestroom, reading about concentration camps.

I wanted to be Alma Wilson, the daughter who padded around the house barefoot and had slumber parties. I wanted us to be The Wilsons, the mom and dad and kid that had quirky snapshots on the fridge.

But I would always be the Jewish girl, the step-daughter. I was the one who would stick out in family photos, who wouldn’t look like the cousins and aunts and uncles. My skin a little too dark, my hair too thick, too curly. My eyes the wrong color.

I smiled and thanked Bill. I opened the book and read the inscription:

Welcome to the family.

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