Fiction: If You Looked Better, I'd Take You

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July 23, 2014

Before going steady with Judaism, I had crushes on other religious practices, beginning in first grade. I was one of four girls selected to hold a corner ribbon on the satin pillow in the May procession. We trailed alongside the prettiest eighth-grade girl who placed the gold crown on Mary’s head.

I took my First Holy Communion very seriously, especially the part about our teeth. Sister Marie Frances said if we didn’t brush them before communion, it would be like inviting Jesus to dinner and serving him with dirty dishes. Third-graders on the playground said Jerome Faluso bit the host and it bled, and that’s why his family moved away to a town in Michigan’s thumb.

When the big morning arrived, the required three-hour fast made me feel grown up, but my mouth was dry as chalk. The priest placed the communion wafer on my tongue. I tried to swallow, but it was glued to the roof of my mouth, so I scraped my tongue back and forth trying to dislodge Jesus. Then the wafer broke up and parts of it stuck to my six-year-old molars. I wanted to stick my finger in my mouth, until I thought of Jerome Faluso’s bloody lips.

A month before First Communion, I had followed my dad from room to room, asking him if he loved Jesus. When he growled instead of answering, I asked him if he at least loved Mary.

My father was Jewish.

When I visited my dad in Saginaw I stayed with my Grandma Gertie and Aunt Dorothy. My mom wouldn’t let me stay with my dad, then, because he was “living in sin.” Yet on these visits I spent whole days with my dad in his pawn shop, where I spruced up the store while dad replaced tubes in televisions and monitored card games in the back room, or he sent me to the corner store to buy snacks. Everywhere I went, I was known as “Danny’s girl.” I sensed that, as I did, everyone thought my dad was the funniest person alive. At the end of our visits, I felt queasy. Life without Danny was empty.

On Sundays, Grandma Gertie and Aunt Dorothy scooted me across the street to attend Mass. They weren’t happy about it, but the priest was their landlord. Grandma told me that every month when he collected rent, she invited him in for schnapps, which he happily accepted.

During Passover I enjoyed matzah with whipped sweet butter while Grandma listened to Arthur Godfrey on the kitchen radio. From the guest room window, I could see a large flashing neon sign advertising Rainbo Bread, and wondered why we couldn’t eat any that week. One afternoon I strolled into the living room with a can of French Fried Onion Rings I’d discovered behind Grandma’s canned peaches.

“Can I have these?” I asked.

“Oh my God,” Grandma gasped, “Where did you get those?” She snatched the can from my hand and threw it out the back door where it landed in the forsythia bush.

Later that day Grandma and I sat on the porch swing together. I asked if we could walk downtown. I longed to go into Heavenrich’s, Seitner’s, and Winkleman’s Department Stores. She looked down at my plaid slacks and dirty tennis shoes, then at the stretchy head band that made my bangs spring forward.

“If you looked better, I’d take you,” she said in her Yiddish accent.

I glanced at her faded house dress and rolled-down stockings. I didn’t think she looked so great herself. We at least looked good enough to go to Woolworth’s. After all, I was “Danny’s girl.”

My dad and I shared the same birthday. He always said that I was the best present he ever got. When my eighth birthday rolled around, I hadn’t seen him in several months. My mom said something about “needing a fresh start.”

At school I passed out Tootsie Roll Pops. It was something a normal kid from a normal family would do. I worked hard at that, because at Holy Family nobody knew my dad wasn’t living with us or that he was Jewish.

After lunch someone knocked on the door. When Sister Reena slipped out and closed the door behind her, chalkboard erasers flew through the air. The door opened and silence filled the room. There stood my dad, with his hat tipped back and an unlit cigar in the corner of his mouth. The nun beckoned for me.

I stepped into the hall and closed the door behind me. My dad set a large cardboard box in front of the milk machine. We hugged for a long time. Then he handed me an envelope with a twenty-dollar bill and a silver charm bracelet.

“There’s a treat in here for your class,” he said, pointing to the large box with his cigar.

“But I already gave them a treat for my birthday.”

“Well, now they get another one. Tell them it’s for my birthday.”

I could already hear the kids trying to figure out why I had two treats and why my dad gave birthday presents to me at school instead of home.

He carried the box into the classroom, set it on Sister Reena’s desk, and pulled out giant Hershey bars. The kids gasped. I gazed at the corner door that led to the playground, wishing I could exit and never come back.

Once the birthday incident was behind us, I had scheduled visits with my dad, and we would go exploring. We caught snakes in jars and hunted for Indian burial grounds. Sometimes we stopped in junk stores and tried on hats or looked inside old suitcases.

In fifth grade, much to my Catholic mother’s delight, I read The Nun’s Story and announced to everyone that I planned to join the convent and become a “bride of Christ.” My mother was so pleased, she bought me a copy of Lives of the Saints. I became obsessed with martyrs, especially Saint Lucy because she held her eyeballs on a small plate. My favorite saint was St. Catherine Laboure’. She lived in Paris, which explained to me why she looked so fashionable in her three pointed nun hat. I wrote a play about her for the talent show, and I cast Teresa Trojanowski as the Blessed Virgin Mary, who appeared to St. Catherine, but I was the playwright, director, and star of the show.

My mother couldn’t even sew a button back on, so Mrs. Trojanowski made my costume complete with the fabulous three-pointed hat. She made the habit from her old dress. It was navy blue with white polka dots turned inside out to the plain navy blue side. She told me to watch out when I raised my arms so polka dots wouldn’t show inside the bell sleeves. I fell to my knees so many times rehearsing apparition scenes that my kneecaps were bruised. I felt like a martyr.

By seventh grade, I was allowed to stay at my father’s house because he was married and no longer “living in sin.” The first time I met his wife, Wilma, she was stark naked, holding a nylon stocking in each hand.

“Jesus Christ, Danny!” she said, jumping behind the closet door.

Wilma and I stayed out of each other’s way. My father greeted her at the door every day with a shaker of martinis when she came home from her secretary job. She paused at the hall mirror and patted her platinum bouffant hairdo before carrying her drink into the bedroom.

I still spent time at Grandma Gertie’s house, where I was allowed to walk downtown by myself to buy 45’s and white lipstick. I developed a taste for gefilte fish, knishes, and corned beef. While Aunt Dorothy dressed for dates, I’d sit on the window seat in her room, fiddling with her jewelry as she struggled into her long-line girdle.

By this time I had left behind saints and martyrs to become infatuated with The Diary of a Young Girl by Anne Frank. A first period, a first kiss. Why she was hiding? I asked my mother if I’d lived in Europe, would I have been sent to a concentration camp since Dad was Jewish? She told me he wasn’t Jewish, he was Romanian.

One New Year’s Eve as I zipped up Aunt Dorothy’s cerise cocktail dress, I asked if she was Romanian or Jewish. She told me about her father, who went to shul everyday and said a blessing over everything he ate or drank. She told me Grandma Gertie used to be called Gittel and she’d been born in Romania after her family fled Russia to escape the czar. She said they were neither Romanian nor Russian, they were Jewish. When Aunt Dorothy was my age, her father was killed in a train accident, and the Hebrew Immigrant Aid Society came to their house. They encouraged Grandma to give up her children for adoption. She sent them away and ever since, Grandma refused to set foot in a synagogue.

My friends and I were waiting for a concert to begin when we heard the news that Jimi Hendrix had died. We were high on one thing or another, when I heard someone behind me say, “Hey, look at that lady in the red coat. It must be somebody’s mother.”

I froze. My mother had just purchased a red coat.

“He didn’t feel a thing,” she told me, then.

“Who didn’t feel a thing?”

“Your father.”

Danny’s funeral was the first Jewish service I’d ever attended, the first time I really thought of my dad as Jewish. The Hebrew prayers sounded mysterious yet familiar on my ears. It was standing room only, and I hoped the people knew that I was “Danny’s Girl.” This was the only time my mother and Wilma would ever be in the same room.” I fought the urge to leave my sobbing mother’s side to slap Wilma, who was frantically asking what had happened to Danny’s diamond pinkie ring. I got my revenge more subtly later, by tugging hard on a thread that dangled from her gold lame’ suit.

A few years later I was teaching Hebrew in religious school and fretting about what to wear to Rosh Hashanah services. I was the only relative present that could say Kaddish at Grandma Gertie’s funeral. Never mind that she had turned her nose up about attending my Adult Bat Mitzvah. For a long time after I chose to go steady with Judaism, I woke up every morning like a blushing bride–not unlike my fifth-grade yearning to be a “bride of Christ.”

After my mother died, I visited the cemetery where my father is buried. Wilma had died the year before. She’d married my dad’s best friend, Turk, less than two months after my dad’s untimely death. There was her grave between the two of them, a Star of David on my father’s grave, a cross on his buddy’s. I found a stone and set it on his grave. Sprinkling a handful of my mother’s ashes I said, “Jesus Christ, Danny.”

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