As we got older our roles reversed as I tried to protect my sisters from our father’s horrible temper. Being 21 years old than our mother, he really was in a different time zone than his wife and three girls and had no desire or idea how to relate to us. He interrupted our harmonious lives together and we began to become resentful of his moods and intolerance as we got older.
There were many times when he would be reprimanding us about walking into the house with wet shoes, or leaving a light on, and Michele and I would keep silent not wanting to send him into a rage, but not Melanie. Melanie would rebel and provoke him, sending him to a dangerous place with his temper. When this would happen Michele and I would scream at both my father and Melanie to stop, shielding the blows as best we could. What we could not understand was his inability to refrain from allowing himself to get to that angry state, both mentally and sometimes physically. Things improved a bit when our mother began to slip him a little blue pill as she fed him all the others for his heart and his back pain, and we would get glimpses into what our mother had fallen in love with. A playful, adventurous, flirtatious, gentle man with an infectious laugh and a wonderful sense of humor. I was the most like him.
As we got older the roles of my sisters and I reversed. Melanie was our warrior, protecting us from our father’s short temper, and his discipline. A natural born rebel, she’d toss fuel onto his anger and get his fires roaring, sending him to a dangerous place. Michele and I would scream at both of them to stop, shielding the blows as best we could. The damage that parents can cause to their children, even without any physical contact, is tributable to the monstrous adults in our world today.
Heading off into the woods, we’d prick our fingers, smashing our blood together in a pact of allegiance, and swearing to always be there for each other.
But Harold wasn’t all bad. His sense of humor, and his love for his daughters and our mother, often redeemed him. It was a traditional marriage that they had, with he working all day in commercial real estate and she doing everything else; the cooking, the entertaining, the taking care of the girls.
Bringing in her people to help her with the cleaning of our large white house on the hill, the ironing of my father’s shirts, and the dinner parties, it was always an enigma as to where our mother found her people who all seemed slightly askew. She took them all under her wing and supported them when she could, and even when she couldn’t, no questions asked, and no judgement, even when she’d come home to find one of them frolicking in she and my father’s bed with his concubine. “Where else is he supposed to go?” She’d ask us as we beckoned her to wake up to reality.
Our mother’s philanthropy was hidden from Harold who felt that these people did not need to benefit from his hard-earned money. He was generous with his family but the buck stopped there.
If he could, Harold would have lived a nice, quiet but adventurous life with his family, but Nicky craved a much less provincial lifestyle surrounding herself with her children and quirky friends. We chalked it all up to her lonely upbringing in England and her desire to take care of other lost souls.
On rainy days she’d bundle us up. The more inclement the weather the more magical our walks became. Gathering our wellies and umbrellas we’d head outside to splash around in the rain, following her like ducklings through the puddles and soaking up her l’aissez-faire energy as she poetically described the changing light on a grey day and the soft whisper of the trees, or in the winter, the snow diamonds sparkling in the snow. With our mum, the stormier the weather, the happier she’d be.
When we turned to teens, it was Harold who demanded our attention for walks that were more like training sessions on how life was not all about fun. The entire walk would be a lecture on marrying well, which meant finding eligible, rich Jewish bachelors. With hands waving in the air like a spasmodic wind mill he’d animatedly talk about the importance of money and finding a man with ambitions. He was too removed from our world to notice that the men of our generation were growing up with different ethics about work and marriage.
We were from the Baby Boom generation, a generation who had only heard about hard times but had never experienced them. Growing up in a time of affluence, we rejected traditional values and lived our life the way we wanted to live it. Filled with fun, and lots and lots of boyfriends, Jewish or not.
Harold’s visions of wealth for us meant that he was not going to release us into the arms of just any brave high school boy pursuing us. He became the watchdog of the house, managing to scare off the weak with his intimate questions like, “What stocks did you buy this week?” If ever any of the men were brave enough to go out to dinner with our family, the ordering part of dinner became one where we’d hold our breath lest some unfortunate boy would order the most expensive thing on the menu AND a drink evoking Harold’s mischievous side, “So, when are YOU going to take US to dinner?” he’d ask. The embarrassing questions increased as we reached the end of our high school tenor when he’d half jokingly request our boyfriends to pay for dinner and offer up marriage proposals. The smart boyfriends learned quickly, appeasing him by watching football with him or by offering to do our chores of cleaning out the gutters and raking the lawn. The not so smart boys stopped calling.
It turns out that Harold had good reason to worry about his girls. Melanie, moody and dreamy with flashing almond green eyes and a passion for clothes, considered herself to be the black sheep of the family, claiming she got the raw end of the stick with our parents who didn’t seem quite ready for a child yet when she popped out. Like her mother, she was the nurturer of other black sheep, attracting beautiful, troubled souls into her life, leaving the house as often as she could with them as they grunted their hellos to our parents, patted her little sister on the head not noticing her batting eyelashes, and screech off.
Michele attracted the perfect boys. The ones who were surely headed for greatness and who had their shit together in high school. The kind I was too intimidated with to flirt with. Excelling at everything, they knew how to impress our parents, dissolving any suspicions so that they could then be naughty in their own teen-aged boy ways and do things like scale up the trellis outside her window late at night to wake her up, or if that didn’t work, knock on her little sister’s more accessible window to let them in.
And then there was me, a girl whose life purpose was to be around boys as much as possible. Harold had his hands full.
As long as I can remember I have always loved boys. The only reason why I got excited for school was so that I could flirt. When I was sixteen I fell madly in love for the first time. He was a year older than me and I was smitten before he even knew I existed. Breathing in everything he did, I observed him for months; the way he leaned into people by bending his tall frame over to get more intimate; the way his pecks bulged as they crossed in front of his waste; the way his friends adored him the most; the way he smiled; the way he laughed. His voice. And then I went to a friend’s house for an unsupervised party, and there he was. Sucking down Blackberry Brandy I gained the courage to descend to the basement and feign interest in the pool game he was playing.
Eventually my lingering presence caught his attention and that night began my love affair with love as we slept wrapped up in each other on an L-shaped couch shared with all of our friends.
Sexy, spiritual and fiercely independent, my first boyfriend taught me all about love in the basement of his house, his parents upstairs. I learned of loyalty and that people don’t fly away when conflict arises. He introduced me to deep thinking, and to question meaning. He introduced me to The Doors and drugs. And then our best friends fell in love too, and we watched as it fell apart after she got pregnant her Junior year.
Much to Harold’s dismay, my first was neither Jewish, nor was he rich. In fact, his lovely, tiny mother was a Born Again Christian and taught Sunday school in tongues. I tried to convince my dad that being a Sunday school teacher meant that she was a wonderful person. He still wouldn’t ever take him out to dinner. But my soul-mate was in love with me, and if my father didn’t get it, than Fuck him. We breathed as one now.
When he went off to college I tried to stay true and resist the attention of the others swarming in, but what was a nineteen year old to do? My mother’s words of wisdom became the soul of my existence, “Relationships are like traveling, the more men you meet in your life, the more life experiences you will have.” She denies ever having said that.