All I want is a photo in my wallet,
a small remembrance of something more solid…
-Chris Stein and Deborah Harry
After my father died, my stepmother gave me a slim cache of photos he had, improbably, kept. Among the pictures—of him as a child, in the Army, at college, as a new father holding his just-born daughter (me), and as an advertising executive on set (with Lucille Ball!), and a few pictures of me at different ages—I discovered three black and white photos of him with my mother, and I suddenly realized that, even though they were married for almost 20 years, I had never seen a picture of my parents together before. There were none in the only photo album they had when I was growing up—a large leather-bound one that had started out as my mother’s. The first pages of that album showed her as a successful young actress in 1950’s New York—head shots, publicity stills, even a picture of a TV set as it played a show she was in—so my father isn’t in any of them. And when the album’s focus shifts to my parents’ life as a newly-married couple and, then, with me, as new parents, one or the other of them was always taking the picture, so there are still no pictures of them together.
All three of these photographs date to before I was born. One is a snapshot of them on ski trip with another couple. The photo is glossy and large and is taken from a little below on a snow-covered slope—four people on skis in ski pants and parkas rest their hands on their poles and grin at the photographer. My mother has goggles on her head over her ski hat, which is crowned with a pompom. Her small self is swamped by all the wrapping, like a child wearing her parent’s clothes. My father, lean and comfortable, goggles around his neck, slants towards my mother a bit.
The other photographs are portrait shots of the two of them together, so close-cropped that there’s barely any background. In one, my parents are facing the camera with their heads tipped together, and they are laughing. In the other, they face each other, nose to nose, foreheads touching, so that we see them in profile only, and they are smiling so broadly that I can spot teeth several back from their pointed canines, and laugh lines radiate from the edges of their eyes.
What strikes me the most about these pictures is my parent’s obvious and great pleasure in each other’s company. It’s almost shocking. When I knew them, they were the kind of couple that provokes friends to wonder why, as if it were surprising that they would know each other as more than acquaintances, that their relationship had ever gone further than a polite “excuse me,” as one of them mistakenly jostled the other in line at a movie. Although they physically matched-up well, they nevertheless seemed made of different types of materials that would have no reason to exist in the same environment—apples and screwdivers, say. There was my mother’s reserve, my father’s boisterousness; my father’s drinking, my mother’s disciplined moderation; my father’s warmth, my mother’s distance; my mother’s social grace, my father’s reliable inappropriateness in any occasion; my father’s poor, quasi-religious, tough-guy Bronx childhood, my mother’s entirely secular Manhattan privileged one. Maybe they could have complemented each other, but they didn’t. At least not when I knew them.
By the time I was old enough to notice such things, their communication was perfunctory, as if they had tacitly agreed that their marriage was not the type to bear scrutiny, that they had best leave each other alone as much as possible. Their physical contact seemed limited to quick back-from-work pecks as my mother, if she was home, would rise from the couch with a “How was your day?” and my father would reply with something non-committal, then say “Hi, Mouse!” to me and head upstairs to get out of his suit as my mother fixed him his first martini of the night, which she would put on the small table to the left of the large “Daddy Chair.” If she wasn’t leaving for a rehearsal or a performance, she would sit silent at the far end of the sofa for the rest of the evening as we watched the news and whatever was the prime time show of the moment and my father cursed at the politicians through his second, third, fourth martini. If I was lucky, I wouldn’t say anything that got him mad. The older I got, the less lucky I became; I was a more responsive target than the politicians on TV. My mother, no matter what, said nothing.
In the mornings, I would often find my father had slept on the daybed in the back room because my mother couldn’t sleep through his snoring. That was only, of course, when my mother wasn’t out of town doing a play.
Why was I so blindsided when they told me they were getting a divorce? Maybe I had just assumed that marriage was like this; maybe that’s why I had decided much earlier that I would never get married because it seemed so boring. Given their differences, that they lasted for the eighteen years they did was an accomplishment.
But my parents’ choice of each other remains a knot I itch to untie; my perennial discomfort with myself as a child felt somehow rooted in their mis-matched-ness, and I’ve never really gotten over it. I wonder if only children internalize each of their parents more completely, more equally, and so I am host to two opposing and evenly matched sides that could never figure out how to play nice.
But here in these photos, I don’t see those sides at all. Maybe this could be a more solid place to view myself from.
The task of reanimating their original attraction is vexed because my parents never told me much about their life together before me, and I am left with only scatter-shot stories and those old photos. Some of what I can fill in now I didn’t learn until they were divorced; some not until after my father’s death; some not until my mother’s memory became so thinned by Alzheimer’s that she couldn’t recognize events that she had written about. I have no one to fact check me.
My mother did tell me that the first time she saw my father he was playing the guitar at a party in someone’s apartment in Manhattan, so I start my reconstruction there.
I begin by transposing one of my favorite memories of my father, moving it from our dark and low-ceilinged garden-level living room to a chic upper floor apartment somewhere in the East 50s, with cream-colored walls and chrome-accented furniture. I see him sitting on a rust-colored corduroy couch, a white Kent cigarette burning in a blown-glass ashtray on the side table, a guitar resting on his crossed leg and under his right arm, and that hand draped down to the strings, which his fingertips pull at gently while his left hand moves along the guitar’s neck. My mother used to say that it was my father’s hands that first attracted her. His hands were smooth, flexible, stronger and more capable than they appeared with their perfectly tapered fingers and symmetrically oval nails. They were an artist’s hands, or a gentleman’s hands . . . as if all my father’s unrealized potential were contained within them.
And maybe there are a few women sitting close to him, listening to his tentative and expressive tenor, thinking about his potential as a mate—rising advertising executive, handsome, but not threateningly so, with a warmth about him, a mischievous glint—and, underneath, where it would at this point only add depth and interest, that woundedness, barely perceivable.
Now, I shift the camera to take in my mother. I imagine her as I remember her and as she appeared in her headshots and press photos, small and delicate and so pretty and with a clear light in her pale green-brown eyes that seemed to be always anticipating a bright future. Maybe she is wearing the quilted black satin circle skirt with the dull yellow embroidery I found in her “costume box” when I was little. She told me she would wear it with a black turtleneck, and I so picture her in both, her then-long hair pulled back off her face with a black velvet bow at the nape of her neck, as it was in an early headshot I used to love.
In my re-creation, my mother notices the women sitting around my father, first, and looks over their clothing, evaluating and filing for future reference. Then she notices the hands moving along the strings. Then she takes in the man they belong to.
Now I imagine him seeing her: she is framed in a doorway, maybe with a crudité in one hand, looking over the scene in the room, at the young New Yorkers enjoying the privilege of being young New Yorkers, and secure in the knowledge that she is one of them. Maybe she has just smiled in response to a passing comment. He puts his guitar aside.
My father would not have had a martini in his hand as he made his way over to her—he liked to point out, post-divorce, that my mother had introduced him to hard liquor, that he had begun drinking martinis with her.
Did they go home together that night? Or did he drive her to her apartment, or walk her, or cab her, take her keys and open her front door for her, then kiss her and leave? Did he call her the next day? Send flowers?
What did they see in each other that led from that party to their stymieing decision to marry?
Here is what I know about my mother at that time: her mother, a successful career woman in an era when there were few, whose control my mother had fought ferociously to escape, had died in a plane crash earlier that year—my mother described herself as having been “relieved”; she rarely saw her father, who, although married to her mother, had spent most of his time in Los Angeles while she was growing up, and had even had another wife in all but law there, whose picture he had on his desk in his New York office, instead of his real wife’s or daughter’s. She had been blacklisted a few years earlier, and her career as a rising television actress had been interrupted; she was now working as an agent at MCA, which had its moments of pleasure, but for her, always, acting was a necessity, and she missed it bitterly.
Here is what I think may she may have been feeling: since no one knew when or if the blacklist would lift, she was not sure anyone would ever hire her again; and, even if she could get hired, she might no longer be able to make a living as an actress, so she needed support; I know that for the first time in her life, she had no mother to escape, to push against to protect her own freedom, and also no mother to belong to, to be needed by, to be smothered by, to be loved by.
And my father? Fresh out of college on the GI Bill, and in uncharacteristic sheep-like response to one of those career aptitude tests, he had hitched his future to the smartly-suited and martini’d world of Madison Avenue, disregarding his own distaste for and lack of talent in most of what that world dealt in: diplomacy and compromise, selling, keeping-up-with-the-joneses-ness, nondescript conversation, flattery. Perhaps this burying of his own character made that world’s drinking and the womanizing seem a life-raft that would allow him to believe he wasn’t drowning.
I try to imagine what my father takes away from that first meeting. This woman is pretty, funny, and smart. He would certainly have noticed the more-than-a touch of entitlement in her bearing, but that was always mixed with a vulnerability that made people want to protect her—even in the assisted home facility over a half-century later, she will be treated with the special deference reserved for a fragile treasure. And my father liked to feel protective.
And maybe her double identity appealed to him—her ability to pass, even to herself. She hadn’t even known she was Jewish until she started elementary school and a teacher told her she was. Well-brought-up, dance-classed and Bally’s-shod only child of several generations of assimilated moneyed New York now-barely-Jews originally from Austria (Vienna) and Russia, she was the quintessential non-denominational Park Avenue girl. My father loved to tell the story of how, when he finally took my mother to his parents’ house, he let his mother stew in obvious suspense through the evening, and, when she called him the next day to say how lovely my mother was, and to hem and haw till finally she came out with : “So, David . . . is she Jewish?”, his reply, calculated to dismay, was, “Gee, Mom, I don’t know; I’ll ask her.”
My father must have seen my mother in the same light as he saw advertising: a way to prove that he was of better stuff than what he truly believed himself to be made. He had already distanced himself as much as possible from his old neighborhood and the culture his mother and father brought with them from the part of Poland that my father took great pains to say was, at the time they left, in fact, Austria-Hungary. We celebrated Christmas and Easter, never Hanukkah, and I didn’t know what a Seder was until a fourth grade classmate invited me to her house for Passover, where, never having seen Manischewitz before and not realizing it was alcohol, I drank seven glasses of it and got sick all over their bathroom.
But my father’s rejection of his childhood was not as total as he made out. My older cousin’s Bar Mitzvah, that same year, marked my first time in a synagogue: I remember that, as my father and I walked into the huge space, he stopped at table and pulled a hair pin and a flat round shiny something out of a box that was there. He put the flat thing on his head. When I asked him what it was, he looked at me, surprised, then said, “This is a yarmulke.” Once we were sitting in the pews, I snuck peeks at him in the yarmulke, surprised at how comfortable he looked in it, and how different, how much softer. And when the call and response part of the service began—a strange, monotonous sound, but beautiful, too, and mysterious—I heard my father’s voice, sure and strong, along with all the others. He wasn’t even looking at the book that had the prayers in Hebrew and English. And when my cousin began to speak in Hebrew, I saw my father’s eyes well up, and he smiled down at me, unashamed.
This was a new view of my father—a person who belonged to a culture that I knew nothing of—and I saw into his childhood for a moment, into a different, wider version than the misery-filled one he always hinted at—his father absent even in the room, his mother threatening his older brother with a kitchen knife as my father hid under the table. Would he have been happier, I’ve wondered often, if he had stayed closer to that world, if he had found a way to rest in the beauty and belonging without being washed away by the violence? Perhaps my mother’s de facto but not de jure Jewish-ness allowed him reinforce at once the connection and the distance.
And what did my mother see in my father? What did those beautiful hands promise to her? When I would ask her, after the divorce, she would tell me that she had wanted to start a family, that she had been ready to settle down, that he had seemed steady, then, reliable and present, someone who’d stay around, unlike her father. Maybe in 1955 my father’s ego was less sensitive, his drinking less inevitable, so that his warmth took the foreground, rather than simply providing relief, as it did later. But I found out just a few years ago by reading a story my mother had written when I was a baby that she knew my father was sleeping with other women even before I was born; could she have been so naïve at twenty-nine to not see the pattern he must have already established?
She also used to tell me that she would never have married my father if her mother had been alive.
So I’m not sure “I wanted a family” covers all that.
I think, instead, at least part of the answer is in the exceptions, as it often is: that my mother was drawn both to the absence she sensed in my father—an absence of him from himself, which he tried to replace with whatever distraction worked for the moment—and to the presence he evinced, warm, yes, often, but also a presence that wanted to encroach on hers, to tell her what to do and how to behave, just like her mother had, and which she could then continue to reject, asserting herself and her rights to an autonomous life, again and again. And maybe the class imbalance between them allowed her a greater sense of separateness—a barrier she desired.
I think, now, that she wanted to have a home without anyone expecting her to be in it. She could be like her father, able to escape while still having a place to belong, to light and rest when she needed to.
My parents went on to have happier relationships. My father married another interesting and artistic New York-born non-Jewish Jewish woman, but this woman was deeply in love with him and stood by him as he, increasingly undone by his drinking, began to lose job after job, and she stayed, too, through the seven months it took cancer to finish him off. She never left him; he died feeling as loved as I think it was possible for him to feel.
My mother ended up with the man it turned out she had been in love with all along, had been involved with during the marriage—a smart, charming, and alcohol-dependent playwright who had a temper, but nothing like my father’s—and stopped leaving home as much.
And I, in spite of my trepidation, did end up married, and not at all bored. Our only child, now twenty-one, has seen many photos of his father and me together. The one that sits framed in our living room was, in fact, taken by him. So the split I saw between my parents didn’t, after all, render me averse to marriage, and my husband and I have both managed to stay put.
But still, there’s that wish, that infantile, fairy-tale wish, for my parents to have been happy together. At least for a while. Like in the photos. Although I now remember my mother telling me that she never liked skiing, and those portraits do look posed. Photos lie as often as they reveal. And at the same time, maybe.
My parents, both gone now, ended up as footnotes for each other, not the main text. But for me, they are the story, and I still ache to know them before, when they were young and New York was smaller, when they introduced themselves to each other:
“I’m Nancy. Nice to meet you.”
Kate Neuman is a writer and actor who lives in New York. Her essays have appeared in The New York Times, The Iowa Review, Mr. Beller’s Neighborhood, The Daily News, The Independent (U.K.), The Village Sun, The Citron Review, Juxptaprose, and elsewhere. Read more of her work at kateneuman.com
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