Life, the Musical
When Tina enters the Recession-era front room, drab linoleum, blonde plastic end tables, dark, swirly couches covered in nicotine plastic, her grandmother is watching Ted Mack’s Original Amateur Hour. “A happy show,” she says in Yiddish. Tina, sitting across from her, hears a portly, mustached man sing opera. He makes the applause-o-meter go berserk. Tina listens as a teenaged girl in a dirndl skirt sings a medley from The Sound of Music. “A shanie madele,” or pretty girl, her grandmother says to her. Tina’s deaf grandmother loves music.
The television is her grandmother’s bright side. Her dark side is located in the unfinished concrete basement, where she goes to moan and howl like a wounded animal. The entire family tries to ignore her with silence or activity. Her father is out of the house, always at work. Tina takes her bicycle and endlessly circles the block singing songs from South Pacific. Some enchanted evening ... she howls at the blazing sun. Her sister, older and freer, flees with her friends. Only her mother has no place to go.
In its aftermath, no one speaks of her grandmother’s despair. Foreign and inexplicable, it is some beast that has accompanied her from Russia and lives in a dark corner. If the family pays it any heed, it will mark the entire group with its strange, unmentionable power. Their lives can’t hold the explanations that tenderness entails. If they speak of their grandmother’s sorrow, they will need to find words for other injuries: for Tina’s mother’s depression, for her lapses of memory after electroshock therapy, for her occasional disappearances for the rest cures that keep her alive.
Tina isn’t to be openly insolent to her grandmother, but showing her favor may incite her parents. They might deny her lemonades and brownies for dessert or refuse to take her to Rainbow Beach. The glittery plastic headband she’s been eyeing at Woolworth’s or the new box turtle to replace the dead one whose shell has gone soft might go unbought. When Tina’s grandmother loves her, which she obviously does, Tina is to ignore it. Too late to comfort her grandmother, Tina shows her incendiary appreciation by loving popular music, by knowing a full century of song lyrics, by singing like a fool as she drives or lies alone in bed.
In the 1970s an anthropologist reported on a tribe that was intentionally cruel to one another. As humor would have it, their name was the Ik. The Ik would laugh when their children got burned or if a stillbirth took place. The Germans have a word for this, Schadenfreude, which means lack of empathy. When Tina is in college and learns of the Ik, she wonders if her family might be lost members.
Her Mother’s Silence
Her mother’s silence is an outcome of depression, a persistent one for which there’s no explanation. Perhaps, as we now know and correct with a variety of pills, it’s all organic. Perhaps her mother’s father, the grandfather Tina only knows as a sick elderly man wasting away in a back bedroom, is the cause. Her mother’s mother has gone deaf in Russia as a result of spinal meningitis that destroyed the nerve endings in her ears. Upon her arrival in Chicago, she marries a fellow immigrant twice her age and settles down. He has a family he’s left behind in Russia, but that is hardly a consideration in his new home.
When Tina’s aunt is born, Tina’s grandmother takes the child to bed with her so that her husband, a skilled coppersmith by trade, can wake up in time for work without the aggravation of a crying infant. He no longer sleeps with Tina’s grandmother. Instead, he sleeps in a different bedroom with his older daughter, Tina’s mother. Tina’s mother has told her how soft her father’s earlobes were and how she’d tickle them before she fell asleep. Maybe he touches her back. Maybe the nights are cold and long, and there is no comfort. The story is closed to Tina, but she can imagine its progress toward some kind of tenderness.
Decades later, Tina and her sister lie naked in bed, bodies close. They hold their heads together and make loud purring sounds that vibrate their skulls, jaws, and throats. The noise is both comforting and shrill. Tina’s sister is ten years her senior and already has a mature body when they begin this practice. What Tina remembers is comfort, no harm. Why foist harm upon her mother’s report of earlobes?
Did Tina’s father tell her to get a bra because her budding figure embarrassed him with its openness, because it caused him to yearn for his own daughter? Or was he concerned that some day without proper care Tina would have sagging breasts and no man to love her? These are the mysteries that stories determine to solve, but in leaving them open, aren’t we persuading the story to tell us what it knows, keeping the work open to possibility? Seeking a motive is a vicious game.
Everyone Grows Up Despite It All
Tina is twenty-one and working as a waitress at the Drake Hotel. Her friend Michelle is walking away from work every day with parts of the hotel under her coat: glasses and wine openers and wicker baskets and raw steaks. Emboldened by Michelle’s example (or perhaps by the Manhattan straight up that she drinks alone at a bar before taking the bus home), Tina enters the local Woolworth’s and puts some patchouli oil and watermelon lip gloss into her pocket. When she gets back to her apartment, she throws them away. She doesn’t mention the theft to anyone. She never tells anyone about her abortion either.
There Are So Many Things She Has to Learn
There are so many things Tina has to learn, how to leave her mother alone when she comes home from the hospital, how to understand a look of hers that means something special: I’m trying to die and might succeed if it weren’t for my daughters. Her mother has read about Japan, where women tired of living take their children along. Although, by some logic, it’s kinder that way, she won’t harm Tina. She won’t even tempt herself by taking Tina to the beach that entire summer. She buys her daughter a baby pool and sends her off to day camp. While Tina is at camp, her mother stays in bed. Sometimes it’s most humane to almost disappear.
There are so many things she has to learn, how to speak English when she can’t hear English spoken. She makes so many mistakes with it, but not even their humor is clear. When she says “Zoop” for 7-UP, thinking the 7 a Z, when she says “Applause” for “applesauce.” She is teaching her granddaughters things they can do with their hands: how to play checkers, how to crochet. The little one walks around the house making great crocheted strings long as clotheslines. The grandmother writes poems in Yiddish to these little girls, her only darlings, some of which are published in the Daily Forward. Others are lost when the Jewish Home for the Elderly on Chicago’s West Side has to be evacuated due to a bomb threat after the killing of Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr. The mottled black-and-white composition book she writes in is never recovered. It is thought by nurse’s aides to be a figment of her imagination.
It must be Christmastime because it is over a television show Tina associates with that season. It is four p.m. and the house is eerily lit. Outside the sun is setting early, and long shadows are falling on the snow. Her grandmother is in the kitchen starting dinner. Her signature dish, beef stew, filled with huge onions and small cuts of celery, is boiling in a pot. Tina’s mother is off with her father getting a shock treatment. Tina is only five and knows nothing of the process, which she has since researched, but knows that her mother comes home changed, her affect zombielike, her speech slower, and her memory and attention affected by lapses. Tina is used to her depression and its signs: the sweater even when the weather is warm, her lack of interest in food and food preparation, her commitment to chair sitting and distance gazing, but the aftermaths of the shock treatments are new.
Tina lets Sherry control the television. After all, Tina has her imagination. She can sit under the dining-room table, where she alternates identities. She is a cowboy shooting an Indian from behind a rock or Flash Gordon’s girlfriend, Dale Arden, watching a torture involving bizarre wires and numerous dials. But The Cinnamon Bear is compelling viewing. Tina is not willing to switch to Sherry’s favorite, American Bandstand. Tina guesses that the association of a favorite animal with a comforting taste makes the show worth fighting for. Emulating her mother’s eating habits, the only foods Tina allows herself are bacon and pretzels. She would enjoy chewing glass were it available. She is skinny as a rail, and the doctor has asked her mother if she has been feeding Tina, a major insult for a Jewish mother, even a depressed, anorectic one.
Tina, at home with her grandmother, desperately fears being alone with her. If the telephone rings, her grandmother won’t hear it, and Tina isn’t supposed to answer. If someone comes to their door, Tina is supposed to mediate the situation between the census taker or Fuller Brush man and a wildly gesturing woman. In her mother’s absence, Tina is the keeper of bells and the conservator of language in her household. Sherry comes home from the world outside. When her sister throws her furry-collared coat to the floor and enters the front room, Tina feels enormous relief. Without hesitating, as if she were the sole proprietor, Sherry walks over to the television and turns off The Cinnamon Bear.
Tina heaves two crashing blows at Sherry’s back with her left fist. Sherry turns and pushes Tina to the floor, which vibrates with her weight. The momentum slides Tina toward the wall, where she lands with a thud. The noise causes her grandmother to come into the front room and scream as she rarely has. How can they behave this way at this moment? Their mother will be home soon, and what will she find? Crying, bruised sisters.
The scene goes black here except for the arrival of Tina’s mother and the major clue Tina receives when something is seriously amiss: Her mother is wearing no lipstick.
Tina’s mother is almost eighty-six, and this is a Sunday outing. She and Sherry have taken her to an American chain restaurant convenient to her retirement home. She’s ordered a huge plate of food for herself, French fries, steak well done, and breaded shrimp. Her eating disorders are long in the past. Her husband and mother have been gone for nearly three decades. Although Tina and her sister are grown women with families, their mother makes a remark about a sign reading “KIDS EAT FREE.”
“These are my kids,” she smiles shrewdly. “So they eat free?”
“Only on Tuesdays,” replies the nonplussed waitress.
They begin discussing O.J. Simpson, a topic in the news.
“He’s as guilty as hell,” Tina’s mother says. “I can’t believe he got away with it.”
“Proste menschen,” Sherry adds, meaning cheap people, a souvenir of their grandmother’s Yiddish.
The talk continues to the news, how in Italy within a year scientists will clone a person.
“Let’s clone you,” Tina tells her mother, “and then we’ll raise you again and see how you turn out.”
“I was a cute baby,” her mother smiles radiantly.
Aren’t we all cute babies, Tina thinks, those we cherish, those we don’t, those who raise us, those who are centuries in the ground, all of us starting with so much shape, so much promise.