A Houston Story

Photo by Finn on Unsplash

In America he began as a junk man. This was in Houston, Texas, where he and his wife settled because they had heard on the boat that Texas was the true land of opportunity inside the great land of opportunity. She took work as a maid for rich gentiles. She would pretend that she lived in the old-fashioned house shadowed by big old-fashioned curvy live oak trees. She would pretend she was polishing her own silver for her own dinner party. (Imagine!)  She would pretend she was dusting portraits of her own family members, when she couldn’t now remember the faces of her grandparents or brothers. Within eight years they had three children. He prospered in junk, moving into the machine-tool business, import and export. He still called himself a junk man, though with irony, waiting for the other person to argue, no no he was not. His business was booming in a boom town. He invested in an oil well with a man he barely knew. He didn’t tell his wife about this risky act until viscous black liquid shot up flowing over everything and they were rich.

They bought their own large, new historic-looking house in River Oaks. She hired a Mexican woman to polish the stairs and floors and fancy new silver service. They put the children in the schools where their neighbors put their children—private, exclusive, secular. Having had no formal education themselves, they respected it enormously. The children spent their summers studying outer space in Florida or higher mathematics in Boston and writing letters home, the home where there was spit and shine but no joy because joy had begun to die in 1939 if not before. It had been obliterated completely by 1945; murdered, six million times. The parents could not give their children playful childhoods because neither of them had had real childhoods. This is what Linda, Ned, and Julia would repeat alone in a room with a Freudian or Jungian or behaviorist or Reichian or cognitive therapist, and they had discussed it, the three of them, together, within their dust-ruffled and Oriental-rugged and central-air-conditioned house. The three children would agree that their parents had never played, so they expected everyone to work all the time. Books had been allowed, especially free ones from the library, handled gently. Dolls and building toys, too, because they had a purpose, to train. But the parents had never been people who joined their children in a spontaneous game of run-from-the-monster; they had never kneeled next to a toy kitchen and pretended to eat the plastic steaks and eggs that their children had pretended to cook. 

We didn’t laugh much, Linda, Ned, and Julia told their therapists, amusing themselves with the understatement. Here and there a rueful ha! escaped.

Yes, it was true, so what? How could they take up play at 18, 22, 24? You can’t take yourself to a playground as a grown person and squat down on the teeter-totter across from some tot. It was too late. They were dead.  Sometimes they knew it and sometimes they hoped so much that they weren’t that they imagined that life and liveliness emanated from themselves and ignited a pilot light of the soul which in reality had never been lit.

*

A Pause. The parents’ story: 

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Once upon a time two dead people met near Munich, the town of beer and Nazis. They were in a Displaced Persons camp, 1946. They had much in common: both born into poor Jewish families in little shtetl market towns, both families nearly decimated between the wars with starvation, TB and typhus.  Each was the sole survivor of their family. After Auschwitz, the woman had traveled with a friend-sister with whom she had shared her fate and crusts. The friend was from Kielce and they went back there by train and cart and on foot back to her hometown. The friendly Poles greeted them with bared teeth and bullets and fists. Killing forty Jews, including the friend.

The man believed that poor people had fared better in the destruction than the rich. The poor could live on nothing and were used to scraping by. What other language has a word for a man who lives on air, on nothing? he said, not having to name the language, Yiddish, because he was speaking it. Both of them had come from houses with floors made of packed dirt. You can’t put no rug on dirt, he would say. He was vague about exactly what he had gone through in the war, but he said he was in six different camps—labor, concentration and extermination. He was in the Sonderkommando for a week. This was the group that pulled the corpses from the ovens. They knew the Nazi secret to mass slaughter and most Sonderkommando were killed after working there. Somehow he slipped away. 

The two skeletons southwest of Munich met in Yiddish, complained in Yiddish about the complaining German Jews in the camp, and they kissed and decided to marry, he in a borrowed suit, she in a shapeless wedding dress made from parachute silk, a dress that still had the smell of skin and old lipstick on it from the bride who’d worn it earlier that day. He refused the traditional stomp on the traditional wine glass symbolizing the sorrow that the Jews remember in the midst of joy. There was no joy. They both knew that. The planned to go to America and work and make a home and have children. As if something biological spurred them, beyond their control. 

The German-speaking Jews pretended not to understand the Yiddish of the posheter Yidn, the poor Jews. In the DP camps everyone separated themselves by language, and because they were all free, they were all free to bicker, to find fault with everything and everyone because they couldn’t bring themselves to express the pain and loss and terror without end. If you start to cry, always forever you will cry, the woman said.

*

In America, decades later, late December her senior year of college Julia, the youngest, was in Lake Placid (she loved the name) in New York State, skiing with two girls from her dorm. There was a blizzard and they couldn’t go out. There were a dozen guests in the inn and they lit candles and poured oil into old lanterns and cooked their own shish-kababs in the big fireplace in the lobby.  She was carefully roasting marshmallows for some-mores when a marshmallow of hers flamed, blackened, and fell all liquid into the ashes. Damn! she shouted, which got the attention of a young man who was quite alive. He was Christian, though really an atheist, a rags-to-riches Harvard grad (BA, not even MBA), who was making money, everyone said, hand over fist on Wall Street. He is gorgeous, Linda thought. He offered her a new marshmallow to try and after that they had conversations into the night then sex into dawn for three days straight. On the fourth day he asked her to marry him, which sounded to both of them foolish and old-fashioned, but both of them were young old-fashioned romantics. When the roads cleared she decided they had to see her family, they had to meet Johnny, they would love him, and deep down she was hoping that their excitement would flow back to her, even though deeper down she knew that no excitement could be generated by members of her family, including herself--only, if she were lucky, the appearance of excitement.

In Houston, Julia’s older sister Linda liked Johnny immediately. Linda was floating around in her life. She had gone through many colleges and as many selves. She’d been the backup singer for a country music band, a small-time drug dealer, and a house painter. Now she was wavering between enrolling in pastry school and going to Israel to live.  She was hesitant about Israel at the same time she was grateful for its existence. It was the place that Jews could flee to when they couldn’t survive or succeed in America. Once you were in Israel, Linda thought, you didn’t have to achieve. To live in The Land was enough. It was something your parents could tell people you were doing, with pride, as if your making Aliyah had been the point of their lives. 

In the 1970s the country of Israel hadn’t grown into itself yet—it was not all Silicon-Valleyed and lined with cell phones, neighbors would still drop by one another’s apartments for tea and cake, without an invitation, and collective living was still collective. There had not yet been an intifada. But Linda didn’t have an opinion of the politics or social practices of the country. For her, the problem with Israel was that it was Israeli—a second-world country. She’d been there once, for two weeks. It was hot and smelled of bus exhaust and was not truly modern, it was backwards. The problem with The Land was that it was land—desert and bumpy roads, and then there was the language. She and her siblings had attended Sunday School spottily in a conservative synagogue but nothing had come of it. In Israel, Linda knew, you’d enroll in state-funded Hebrew classes. What a language! Left to right, back to front, vowels at the bottom of the letters, and books and newspapers didn’t even have vowels. Linda was afraid that she was too old and set in her ways, too dependent on air conditioning and familiar freeways to subject herself to Hebrew and Israel.  When Johnny came to visit she was taking a Hebrew class at U of H.  Their parents respected school almost as much as they respected work. But because it was just one class, they expected Linda to do something worthy. She could volunteer with the orphans with her mother or else help out at her father’s office, typing and filing, to learn the business from the ground up. She might inherit it someday, or she might have a husband who would join then run the company. At the moment she was much more capable than Ned. At the machine-tool company she felt peace as she put manila folders in their places inside the drawers in the file room.

Ned was back from one of his continual rehabs for a coke habit he didn’t want to lose. He loved the fresh and shooting swoosh of cocaine—like having drunk a thousand cups of coffee all at once, he would say. He was supposed to be going to NA, Narcotics Anonymous, at least four times a week but he too floated around the house and went for long walks (so he said) to the quaint shopping area called the Village and came back red-eyed, starting and stopping conversations as he scampered from room to room. He was trying to make himself feel alive. During college, which he had finished, he had made a strenuous effort to avoid the draft, and had succeeded, with the help of a family doctor who was against the war.

Their parents were busy, their father working from dawn to eight in what he still called the junk business. He had made his second million as an importer of machine tools. The business could run itself, Ned said, especially when his father tried to get him to take an interest in it. Sometimes Ned wondered whether any of the machine tools ended up in Vietnam or Cambodia, but he didn’t ask. Their mother had taken upon herself to become a great cultured lady. She with her Yiddish syntax had joined arts boards and guilds. She had been blackballed from the Junior League, though she thought it was because she was 40, too old to be a junior. She took up card playing and bridge lessons and Cordon Bleu cooking lessons and had forgotten the faces of her parents. She volunteered in the library of the DePelchin Faith Home, behind the counter, and she worked in Book Returns, without much contact with the kids, because she could not stand to see the children close-up and know that they were orphans. She had learned that shopping was an art, an event, a way of life, and had favorite salespeople at Neiman’s and Saks, women who would call her before the start of a sale to ask if they should put a certain dress or necklace aside for her.

She gave lavish dinner parties, though their closest friends were other Polish survivors who didn’t know which fork to use. A few of these friends felt uncomfortable sitting at the table with its charger plates and crystal-contained wine and water poured by hired staff. But they came so that they could tell other friends that they had dined there, and they liked the filet mignon and champagne and Yorkshire pudding. The uncomfortable ones either got more comfortable or dropped away so that the remainder entertained one another, all forcing themselves to say ooh and ah when the caterer lighted the baked Alaska, because that is what they heard the goyim did.

During his visit, Johnny provided a running patter that sounded genuine to all, and well-informed, and gentle. When he asked questions, he waited for the answers, and added follow-up questions. He doled out interest and compliments easily, and seriously. Linda glowed. The parents were polite with Johnny, and even were effusive, but did not think their daughter should marry him. He wasn’t Jewish. He wasn’t known. He would probably take her up to New York City to live. They thought it was ridiculous to marry someone you had just met, nowadays, in America. Julia and Johnny were not, after all, skeletons in a DP camp needing to join together to generate heat to keep themselves from collapsing separately. And besides, Julia was still in college. She wanted a June wedding, she pointed out, which meant she would technically be graduated by then, but the whole scheme seemed unnecessary and impetuous to them. None of the children of their friends were getting married so young. They were in law school or medical school or working on their MBAs. The parents bared their teeth at the couple, thinking they were smiling. 

The third morning of his visit, Linda said at breakfast of pecan pancakes that their maid had made, want to give you an engagement party, just a little one, only people who could fit around the dining room table—with the leaf in. A dozen, say, on Valentine’s Day, that’d be perfect, and we’ll have red food and chocolate. Julia bit her nail because Valentine’s Day was probably during midterms. OK, said Linda, how about Spring Break? Johnny could get a Friday off and we could have something cozy, and small, and I’ll make it myself, no caterers. It’ll be like back when we were children, which was a ridiculous thing to say, because as addled as they were now, they were even more confused and petulant and perpetual outsiders when they were children. They hadn’t clumped together, say, to create a cat circus in the backyard or to make mud pies or to play school or Capture the Flag. They had been children who hadn’t been very successful at being children. As noted.

Julia looked up her academic calendar and she agreed to a party on a Saturday night during Spring Break. It would be homey, objected to the date as politely as she could and they agreed on another one, later in the spring. It would be on that Saturday night, and it would be homey, and Linda would come up with a menu and check it with Julia. Linda planned to make the breads herself as well as all the other dishes. If it was too much for her she would order some breads and cheeses and imported things in jars from Alfred’s and Antone’s but make a big salad herself or else have a salad bar on the buffet. Julia would give Linda a list of her friends and their addresses. Some of her high school friends might be in town if their Spring Breaks lined up, and she wanted to invite the girls she’d gone skiing with at Lake Placid. Linda picked out some small blue invitations and had Julia’s list ready, and had bought some pretty postage stamps, in mid-February, Valentine’s Day to be exact, while Julia was studying for mid-terms up at Vassar, Linda, in Houston, came down with the flu--even though she had had her shot in the fall, it was a different variety already by now, the doctor said. Linda had fever dreams of rainstorms and mud and people living in dilapidated wooden shacks. She didn’t want to tell her mother these dreams because she knew that the shacks in them had not been crowded, there had been plenty of room, not like the overcrowded suffocating bunks in a concentration camp. All my life, she and her siblings told various counselors, I didn’t think I should complain about anything because compared to my parents’—.

Her mother offered to help her with the party, after all the invitations had to go out soon, and so by the time Linda’s feverish dreams had moved on to afflict someone else, the party list had grown and the phone was ringing with RSVPs. How many people did you invite? she asked her mother and her mother said, We had to invite some friends of ours, we owe them, we can’t have a party without having them. And so on that Saturday night in late March in balmy Houston car after car stopped in the circle driveway and people flounced out of them in skimpy and frilly dresses and modest but expensive sports jackets. In all, there were about 50 guests, and because there were so many, Julia’s mother had hired a catering staff to pass hors d’oeuvres and keep wine glasses filled, and though some of the people there were Julia’s intimate friends there were others she barely knew.  A pianist had been hired to play Gershwin and show tunes to the happy couple. The younger female guests would ask to look at Julia’s ring and would squeal, which wasn’t called for, because it was a small gold band with a small emerald, Johnny had wanted to buy her something pretty that she would like looking at, and a big rock was the last thing either of them had wanted.  

Linda tried to mingle but she was annoyed and she knew that she was living the plot of Holiday, she in the Katharine Hepburn role, the old maid sister who doesn’t get to throw the small and casual party for her engaged sister, though in Linda’s case, the family in question was Jewish and Texan, and real, and not high-class, East Coast WASP, and fictional. Linda remembered that Katharine Hepburn’s character had felt outraged that this lovely thing, an informal dinner party that she planned herself, was taken away from her. Control, everything is always about control, Linda knew, and she’d always heard: parents trying to control children, children trying to control their own lives and the future, and evil controlling overall. 

Her annoyance lasted less than a couple of hours, but still she was not having a wonderful time that night at the medium-large engagement party for her sister and Johnny. This is what Linda wished: She wished that Johnny (Cary Grant in his dark-haired days) had confided in her that he wanted to take time off, to travel and find himself (as per Holiday), and that she had encouraged him, and that during the party she and Johnny had escaped upstairs to the old playroom, where his smart and funny dowdy friends were, and they all played, really played, like children, that he turned somersaults and his friends voiced the puppets from the stage of the old puppet theater. She wished that Julia and Johnny would have it out, that Julia would tell him that his notion of a holiday now was immature, he had to work now, he could travel during vacations or when he retired, and her father was ready to bring him into the business now, so he couldn’t decide to leave town for a year or two while he tried to figure things out. In response, they would break the engagement the day after the party, and Johnny would buy a ticket on a steamer to Europe, and she would find out about it and buy her own and join him at the last minute, along with Johnny’s friends, the professor couple, whose remarks were dry but often mirthful. But this did not happen. None of this. Julia went back to school and lost interest in Johnny, who lived too far away in Manhattan, and they agreed they’d been caught up in an intense infatuation. She started seeing a boy in her French history class, and Johnny went back to his New York City friends, and so it seemed natural and not traumatic when Johnny and Julia officially called off the wedding, which had been set for 18 months hence. 

Ned went to another rehab center and forced himself to get another sponsor and repeat with others: We found ourselves helpless. Linda decided on pastry school, and brought her creations home, like a child does, her parents quizzical about the value of what she was doing—but she was American and understood America so they encouraged her. She continued her studies of Hebrew but did not make Aliyah. When she went to a wedding of a friend who had had a religious upbringing and had taken it seriously, Linda found that she could understand some of the words of the prayers, and the other words sounded familiar and from this wobbly connection she observed, tentatively, the High Holidays when they came around in September.  In seven years’ time she became a reform rabbi in Rochester, NY, and a fine maker of challahs. Julia went to law school and bought severe little suits and chunky heels and dipped her toe into criminal law. Ned continued as a functioning user of various intoxicants and became successful at day-trading. The parents aged and they died. The children sold the house and hired a company to auction off most of the furniture. There was little jewelry. No one argued about who got what. They had little sentimental attachments to things. Ned found himself at the head of the machine-tool company and along with the man who really did run things, decided to sell the business.  After the sale all three children had more millions. Ned continued to day trade and he set up a foundation to educate the children of refugees. Julia and Linda gave most of their money to his foundation. At her law firm, Julia was in charge of all the pro bono cases and began to form connections between poverty and lack of opportunity. She started going to protests. Ten years after Johnny and Julia’s short engagement Julia fell for a woman, a public defender, who was a friend of a friend. By then Rabbi Linda had learned to play the guitar and to sing prayers in Ladino, the language of Sephardic Jews, fueled by an inchoate affinity for dying cultures. She provided the music at most of the services because the shul didn’t have a cantor. Ned left heroin for alcohol, calling himself the world’s only Jewish drunk. He had sober times and not, always remaining dedicated to his refugee foundation, though deep down he felt nothing mattered. Why do I feel like a refugee? he asked himself sometimes. Each of the three children continued to live a life, a sometimes large but mostly small, straitened life, and they continued to mourn their lack of childhood and inability to play and all three said to themselves and to one another, But we can love. Then all three asked themselves: Is it too late?

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