There’s no way to write about my ancestors without beginning with my legs. I wanted the kind that ended somewhere under my armpits, but when I look at my legs, in a mirror, in a bathing suit, I see my Russian grandmother, my great-grandmother, all the mothers before them; the long chain of women back to that first awakening in Africa. Stretch. Move. Plant wide feet on the hot earth. Set a course north into Egypt and across the Red Sea into Persia. Stop and build homes, eat the dates hanging from palms like elongated nipples, the offering of oneself to another. Make love and create a long line of women with legs like timber. Cross the Caucasus into Russia. Feel how wet and fertile it is. Make homes, make babies. Make time to build community, gather herbs, brew medicines. Barefoot, toes always dirty, legs so fucking sturdy they could lift a calf. And when the soldiers came, watching their village go up in flames, babies thrown from second story windows, their bodies like small birds shot from slings; sending their daughters away on trains and ships with food wrapped in paper, with names sewn into clothing, with no language to say my heart is breaking, carrying grief like a stone on their backs, bending them to the task at hand, surviving until the red hot violence returned all they had brought to bloom back to the earth as ash, in smoke and silence.
What does this have to do with me, I ask, these legs that have run behind me for generations calling, Wait, don’t forget us! You need us!
What for? I sneer, getting ready to curl my bangs before the high school prom. Fuck off. I’m washing my wide feet and squeezing them into five inch heels. You’ll be sorry, they echo down the long corridor of my dreams. No I won’t, I yell back over my shoulder. But I’ve got good manners, so I stop and say, Okay, you have five minutes. Spill. And they say, First darling, sit down and have something cool to drink. Flex your little toesies. Remember this little piggy went to market? I roll my eyes. Please, I say, why do you haunt me, follow me, bust my long-limbed fantasy with a Russian peasant Yiddish-speaking thick-legged ancestor I never knew? Because, shaina maidelah, who do you think gave you your strength? How did you learn to stand your ground and hit back when your mother may her soul rest in peace felt free and happy to whack you across the mouth? How did you stand steady and fight back? Think about it. And how if you don’t mind me asking did you walk out of the house and never look back? Certainly not on your hands, darling girl. And the moving from place to place, restless, pacing, running from violence, how did you manage that? Right. On your Russian legs. And when the ocean tried to drown you, the power of your kick against the swirling rip tide is what brought you to shore. And need I remind you of birthing your daughter standing on your two beautiful pillars, pushing and grunting. We have crossed deserts, bargained for food by spreading our legs, closed them when it was time to say goodbye, bent in prayer, in sorrow, leaving our tears to water the ground where we passed and could not settle, used them to flee the burning village, the synagogue in flames, used them to run, and run faster as if our life depended on it. And it did. And now? You lay your legs across the lap of your beloved and he rubs your feet. This little piggy went to market. This little piggy had none.
The place where I was born built my body from the inside out like those workmen slapping mud up on the adobe walls here in the desert. And it was a desert of sorts. So little green in the city, just tall buildings like shark teeth taking a bite out of the sky. The air smelled from hot pretzels, taxi exhaust, the enormous piles of shit the police horses deposited on the street. The city grew me up like a cactus, not much water, spines to protect me, dressed me in black leather and gave me a Harley to ride. The bar in the Village with the guy who looked at my phony ID like it was Monopoly money but poured me a whiskey anyhow. The men who asked how old I was and when I said twelve laughed like I was a contestant on a quiz show and had just blown my stash. The city fed me rhythm and harmony the shuffle of feet horns and whistles the way the tires sucked the street after a rain, a long slow kiss rubber meets the road. The city gave me a jungle with hot breath and coal black eyes behind the swinging vines. The city gave me mother’s milk in my Black Russians poison in my pizza rut gut in my coffee, all to grow me up. The city slapped me around. Get up kid, it said, no one ever said things would be fair, no one ever said there’s a free lunch. Get up and fight back, kid. The city gave me fire and ice like a one-two punch. Don’t get too close or I’ll burn you. Climb over the wall and I’ll turn you to stone. The city drew its map on my skin like a Japanese tattoo: Here the rose struggling to bloom, here ocean waves lapping up my thigh, here the men grabbing at my crotch. The city left the lights on downtown where I shoplifted most of my clothes and all of my shoes. Left the lights on at the opera, the foreign cinema, at the cafeteria, the skating rink where I opened my mouth and swallowed the snow. The city left the porch light on so that when I stumbled home from bus and subway stepping over the old man puking I could fish out my keys a fish out of water. The city shooed me back home whispering, You’re still a girl you’re still a child come back when you’re grown up. The city gave me cab fare, followed me home, tucked me in and turned out the light saying, Don’t worry kid I’ll be back.
They met when they were young, beach houses across from each other on the south shore of Boston. I loved my grandmother’s house. I spent summers there and used to stare across the street. So this is where they met. My dad the youngest of four boys, tall and gorgeous, dark hair and eyes, olive skin. Kind of swoony in his black and white photos. Trim in his tight bathing suit on the beach. Mom petite, wavy dark hair, empty blue eyes, a mouth ready for kissing. She had a more beautiful older sister, and I heard once that she and my dad dated briefly; I wish I had asked for more dirt about this when they were all still alive.
So. Trickle down economics. Youngest girl and youngest boy meet in the middle, the air hot, smelling of the tar slowly melting the pavement. Shy maybe. By that time my mother had already put in her two years as a secretary after college and was getting restless, needing something, someone, and maybe he would do. She said once about their sex that he could make any body anybody melt and I liked that because certainly by the time I was old enough to witness their dynamics, she was a block of ice dense as a glacier, no melting for that babe.
She picked him, or they picked each other or the hot melting tar kept their feet glued to the street long enough for some heat to pass between them.
Their wedding photo: She’s in the long white satin dress with the tiny pearl buttons down the back that I snuck out wearing one Halloween. Came home with the long white train wrecked to face my mother’s wrath.
Their honeymoon photo: This is the one I always inspect when I turn the cracked plastic pages of the family album. They’re in Bermuda, wearing terry cloth robes, maybe fresh from the pool. Huge palm trees behind them. She’s wrapped up so that her legs aren’t exposed. I know this for a fact; she never exposed her short stocky legs. He has his arm around her and is looking down at her fondly, a slight smile on his pillowy lips. And she, I swear to god I have looked and looked and looked, she is turned away from him and is staring at the woman in the periphery of the photo. More specifically at the huge diamond on the woman’s left hand. Bigger, flashier, more valuable fucking bling than my mother’s own paltry stone.
And that is how I think of them: Him with his arm around her, attempting to provide comfort, to reassure her that she is loved, that he never really liked her spectacular older sister, that honestly, they could start a good life together, have kids, move to the suburbs, and sure he might not make a lot but it would be enough, wouldn’t it? Wouldn’t it?
But she wasn’t within ear shot even though he was whispering in her ear, coaxing her to remember the sex the night before, the rum drinks they’d have at dinner, the week ahead of clear blue ocean. Every time I see this goddam picture I count the years—sixteen—until he will have a second heart attack and die, leaving me with her, her envy, her grief.
This is how I heard the story: my father was a long-legged dreamer, a dancer, a whistler in the dark, a deep sea fisherman, a lover of life. He didn’t know himself well enough when he married into my mother’s family to chart his own course so he surrendered to their will. He joined the family fur business in New York City: my dad, my mother’s brother and her father. It was a brutal unholy trinity. My mother’s father, a ruthless Russian from the seaside town of Odessa, came to America with nothing and turned it into something, a big something, enough of a something to bring two relatives into the business to support two other families.
I was young; my father had his first heart attack on my first birthday. We were on the beach, he was in the city. No memory except that from then on doctor’s orders when he wasn’t working he had to rest, no ball throwing with my brother, no wrestling, no fun. So he bit, took the job. Mom drove him to the subway station early every morning, picked him up every night. Separate dinner away from the noise of the kids, two highballs, not much to say. Except for this: He found out my uncle, his brother-in-law, was embezzling from the business. Big fat wads of money leaking out and into his home in Great Neck; a new pool, a live-in maid.
Do I remember the fight? Maybe. What I don’t remember the family story has filled in. He was angry, angrier than his cardiac doctor wanted him to be. He wanted confrontation. He wanted justice, my dad who begged to be let off the leash, to defend his honor, to set things right.
And my Mom, tight-lipped, arms crossed over her chest Absolutely not. I won’t hear of you exposing my family. As if he weren’t her family.
It was late at night. I sat on the highest step and looked down through the wooden banister into the living room, my heart knocking in my small tight chest. Please Lois, he begged. It’s killing me. If you won’t let me be myself, then let’s get out of here. Let’s move to Florida. I’ll fish. We’ll take the kids and make a new life.
Her scorn floated up the stairs like the spoiled fish smell he’d never catch, like the rot at the core of the family business, like the stink at the heart of their union. Fish? Is that how you plan on supporting me?
I go to the sea to remember him. I go to lay his restless soul down in a patch of shade, crack a cold beer for him, lay out the cards for a game of gin rummy. I take him with me when I swim. Here Dad, we’re here. I’m so sorry you had to die to get free, to cut the cord, had to bite off your leg to get out of the trap, to dematerialize so that you could whistle without being shamed, could fish without shame, could finally tell her family to fuck off. I bring him back to the sea like a turtle or a salmon or a whale, returning to a place of peace and joy. Here Dad, I say, let’s stay here awhile and rest.
Oh holy desire you whistled for me when I was so young. Young and ripe and grieving. So yes I began having sex with older men when I was fifteen. But let’s backtrack to the origin of the desire, of the compulsion, back to that night when I was not quite twelve, my best friend Suzanne sleeping over, my parents dressed for a country club party, she in her blue Cinderella dress, he in a tuxedo. And then like in the fairy tales she came home soiled and sobbing and he was taken to the mortuary; how like my handsome father to have a fatal heart attack in his tuxedo. So okay, it really began a month later when I was now officially twelve and I let a stranger, a boy really, pull up my sweater and touch my breasts. What was I doing? I really can’t say. And then at fifteen? Silence on this end, sorry.
Silence. That’s what used to happen later in therapy with the schmuck I was paying too much money for, who would cross his bony fingers over his starched white shirt and try to sound like fucking Freud. So, do you think this behavior has anything to do with looking for your father? Of course it does, you moron.
And then too many lovers to count. Long term, short term, a week, an hour, drugs and psychedelic wise, too wise, wandering the dreamscape of my grief, my older lover putting me on a plane Boston to New Jersey and giving me an envelope with ten Ben Franklins all facing the same way, ten tight-lipped smiles, ten chances to spit at me, a nineteen-year-old girl knocked up by her married professor. I don’t know how he arranged a pre-Roe v. Wade abortion, friend of a friend of a friend I think. There was a big African American woman at the airport holding up a sign with my name on it, but she didn’t need it. She knew me right away by the sweat, the terror on my face. When we got to the brick apartment building squeezed between two others that were squeezed between four others, my legs shook as I followed her up a damp dark staircase into a waiting room with one chair and no magazines, just waiting. That’s all that was there. Waiting. When she took me back to the last door at the end of the hall we entered a small room with a long table, a white sheet draped over it. She handed me a paper gown but didn’t leave the room. I peeled off my jeans and tucked my damp underwear in the back pocket. I lay down and my breath froze my body froze my eyelids froze my tongue stuck to the roof of my mouth my sound froze my heart froze. A small man came into the room. He was wearing a white lab coat, round glasses and had a pinched face, like his lunch hadn’t agreed with him. He flipped open the stirrups at the end of the table and indicated that I was to slip my feet into them. I had to scoot down the table to reach them, my legs suddenly looking like my baby legs, short, pudgy, unbelievably naked. Big woman covered me with a sheet. Small man peered under the sheet like he was going to change my spark plugs, but instead grabbed hold of a hose connected to a vacuum cleaner-looking thing and said, Just relax. Try to unclench your muscles. But wait, what are you doing? My daughter, the scream unfroze, uncurling from my baby my uterus my flesh and threatened to bolt out of me. Big woman put her big hand over my mouth. Small man kept running the vacuum up inside me like he was getting ready to entertain and the rugs needed to be cleaned, like I needed to be cleaned out of whatever was inside of me that didn’t belong there: spilled champagne, pate crumbs on a Ritz cracker. Clean this mess up get this girl up and on her feet and whoa hold on to her because she’s going to fall because she’s going to puke because her skin her flesh her very self has been hurt burned violated see to it she makes it down the stairs put her in a cab send her back to wherever she came from and clean up this mess her mess her skin her baby herself all over the goddamn floor.
Once healed in bodymind, the always playful Fates delivered me to a spiritual teacher, a guru he liked to be called, and there I sat surrendered at his feet, there I sat devoted by his side, there I leaned in tenderly and massaged him every Friday afternoon before the public lecture. And of course you know where this is going. I climbed on top wet and open and had the orgasm I had been seeking, the holy fuck climax with God, gasping while his wife made dinner on the other side of the curtain.
So do you think, my introjected therapist would ask, this behavior has anything to do with looking for your father? Of course it does, you moron, I sneer and rip up the check I was writing.
I desired him with all cells firing. Finally. Guru. Daddy. Holy Man. And me? Street hooker, slut Mary Magdalene, the Chosen One. There was no end to the costumes I could wear, the holy priestess doing a slow strip tease to Tina Turner.
Five years in. He needed me to stay. I needed to go. I needed to stop fucking daddy, stop making decisions from an open wound, running on peasant legs from the undertow of an ancient grief stretching beyond my father all the way back to Russia, and at least try to become the future my ancestors dreamed of.
I have been thinking about my mother, about the violent way she died, the way her two children, my brother and me, gathered supplies half frozen with fear: latex gloves, sleeping pills, a helium tank from Party City, a clear plastic bag large enough to fit over her head, rope to tie around her neck and a rubber hose that hisssssed the helium from the tank under the plastic into her lungs. To stand there and watch her convulse, scream in the sedated muffled way she could scream under that bag scream as helium replaced oxygen, stand there and watch as she twisted and turned, slowly dying, finally dead. The way we spent the next three hours driving in the rain, depositing items one at a time in dumpsters behind fast food restaurants. The way we stayed stoned for days afterwards.
But that’s not what I’ve been thinking about. I’ve been thinking about the birth story handed to her, as rotten as any fairy tale poison apple, thinking about how her mother, new to America, a fifteen-year-old, the only sibling to escape in steerage on the good ship Palatia, out of Russia in 1900 just before the pogroms torched and tortured her whole family, my great-grandmother wailing every day for her lost daughter, how once she arrived in America my grandmother, numb with grief and loss, was shoehorned into an arranged marriage, how she spread her legs that were so exactly like her mother’s legs and gave birth to two children for this stranger, this husband, how when she conceived a third time, she called her cousin Gertie to come, and together they unwound a wire coat hanger and once my grandmother, lying on a sheet on the floor is how I imagine it, once she could unclench her pelvis, her cousin threaded the damn coat hanger which I’m pretty sure wasn’t even sterilized, just wiped with a dirty kitchen towel, threaded it up into my grandmother’s vagina and poked around.
So there’s my mother clinging to the uterus walls, maybe ducking and weaving as the slim metal blade hunts for her. Maybe shrinking up tiny, holding her breath, stilling her pulse, maybe at that moment desperate to survive, the decision she’d spend the rest of her life regretting, fighting always to tuck her birth story away in the attic with the rest of what was left of my grandmother’s stuff. Nothing my mother wanted, all a cheap substitute for motherlove. Oil and water and volatile fights in English and Yiddish, in body language, in rage and terror, in grief that destroyed them both.
So when I think about my mother there’s this thin trail of blood, like the trickle that oozed from my grandmother’s vagina as the coat hanger snaked its way out, that ran all the way through my mother’s life and stained her, from even before she was born to the moment I saw her give up the struggle, the helium tank empty, her eyes fluttering shut, her shoulders relaxing, her sigh, her resting back against the pillow, how she might have thought, drowsy, peaceful, now, now I can finally say no to life.
I applied for the job as a hospice social worker shortly after my brother and I killed our mother. I interviewed for the job, sweat rolling down my sides. Listen, I said, my mother died one fucking horrendous death, pardon my language, and I’d like to see a slightly more enlightened version if you catch my drift. Suffice it to say she was not suffering from a terminal illness; it was more a case of terminal bitterness, a prolonged disappointment with life that we helped her end.
Most weeks I saw twenty patients who were dying from the usual diseases, choices from Column A or Column B. Most weeks I sat with their wives, husbands, parents, children, and listened to them tell me stories about the patient now too far gone to speak. Heard about how she had been the first female pilot, how he always been up for an adventure, had almost climbed to the top of Everest.
But sometimes my patient was a woman living alone, ten or twenty years older than me, still gorgeous, still articulate, sometimes still smoking and drinking, belting back scotch with a wicked grin. We’d cozy up. Maybe I’d smoke with them, pour each of us a drink. They showed me their photos, gave me juicy details about their lovers; we discussed orgasms and how best to fake them. I brought take-out, stayed late, sometimes crawled under the covers to keep them warm. When their hair fell out I brought wigs and we howled with laughter and then choked with tears in front of the mirror.
They grew thin, cheeks sunken, faces gaunt. They lay with their wrinkled legs spread, in labor, birthing themselves into death while I wiped the sweat from their breasts and sang them lullabies.
And: Each one gifted me with something they cherished. When I pull on her red cowboy boots I can’t help but admire my shit-kicking legs. I say, Thank you Joyce. When I travel I take Yvonne’s pashmina scarf because she loved to travel, Annie’s silver bracelet always on my wrist, my morning coffee out of Patricia’s ceramic mug, the lip liner she insisted I take, also the clear nail polish with the glitter inside.
They led me through a wormhole so small I almost missed it straight into the beating heart of humanity where grief is the coin of the realm, begging to be spent on flowers and silk, and where my own heartbreak and loss joined up with theirs and raised a song of mad joy and solidarity.
Some days I am a walking memorial, like the AIDS quilt, my friends coming out with me for lunch, for a café latte, a French movie. They’re delighted to get off their death bed, slip on a transparent coat, slide their cool slender feet into four-inch heels and head out the door. They keep me company; they keep me honest. I rub Annie’s silver bracelet when I’m tired, wondering how to comfort a despairing child, a moody husband. It’s over so soon, she whispers. Remember the fun we had? Pain is coming. Dark times are coming. Celebrate my love. Forgive your parents not because they gave you what you needed, but because they gave you what they could. Leave small shot glasses of vodka on your altar for your ancestors. Bring them the flowering tops of onions in the spring and leave the dirt on the petals; it reminds them of home. Tell them about your marriage to a kind man they would have no reason to fear, and about your beautiful daughter who carries their DNA like a torch, who travels on sturdy legs out and back again, a beloved girl no longer lost. Breathe with them; they dwell within you. Know that you are their living hope, and all that was lost is found again in you, in love.
Ms. London was one of the original authors of Our Bodies, Ourselves, and the author of Hot Flashes, Warm Bottles: First-Time Mothers Over Forty. She holds a Masters degree in social work, and was a hospice social worker for more than a decade. She currently lives in Santa Fe, NM where she has a grief counseling practice and leads writing workshops for women. Her work with the dying opened her to ancestral grief and the vast possibility of healing. www.nancylondonwriter.com