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,
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
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,
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
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
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?
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,
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