Chapter Three: Living in a Fairy Tale
My childhood was its own fairytale, replete with wood nymphs, druids, and goblins who lived in the Victorian Fairy paintings that enveloped the walls of our home.
My two sisters and I grew up in Massachusetts in a white house with a picket white fence surrounding our mother’s magnificent gardens. The house had blue shutters and stood proudly on a hill located on a road called Overbrook in a town called Longmeadow. The wide staircase located in the center of our house was our indoor playground. When we weren’t climbing trees and playing in the woods outside our house, we were playing on the stairway, under the paintings, sledding down the stairs or playing games with our dolls through the bannister rails, or we were lying next to them on top of the stairs in our flannel pj’s late night when our parents were entertaining their friends.
It wasn’t just paintings that enraptured those who were looking, with images of iridescent colored fantastical and evil-spirited creatures peaking out from behind the trunks of gnarled trees in the thick of misty forests by famous artists such as; Arthur Rackham, John Anster Fitzgerald, Richard Doyle and Edmund Dulac. Everywhere one looked one stood the chance of being swept away into the magical worlds that my mother’s artwork collection evoked, whether it was Tiffany lamps with glowing red dragonfly wings, bronze sculptures of mythical creatures, or magnificent insects flying through space with fluorescent wings, the house was it’s own theater of playfulness and mystery.
It was our mother, Nicky, who was the collector of all these beautiful and magical art pieces. Having grown up in England after they won the war our mother remembers living through one of the coldest winters on record with no fuel, heat and limited food supplies. The food that gives children such pleasures such as ice cream and oranges and bananas were not enjoyed until her later adolescent years and the houses were freezing and the heat they did have came from coal fireplaces that emitted a heavy fog into the wet British air.
As an only child it was her books that she read voraciously and sought comfort in outside the house, after often finding herself locked out after getting off the school bus. The books were here companions helping her to escape her loneliness, and it was her paintings that helped to grow our imaginations as children.
Our mother’s childhood was a complete departure from ours. In March of 1938, the week before Hitler and his German troops marched into Austria to annex the German-speaking nation for the Third Reich, Nicky’s parents, Gerta and Arthur Atlas, were in England buying for Arthur’s leather shoe factory, “Brevitt Shoes” (hence the name of our eldest son, a.k.a Thumper). With news that Hitler was coming, they cleverly never went back home. Leaving their Jewish roots behind, and all of their possessions, in the little town of Grinzing, a leafy suburb of Vienna where the wine was celebrated in little vineyards in the autumn, they assimilated life as much as possible in England, starting over with nothing. Gerta was pregnant with Nicky.
My mother grew up thinking she was Christian and sang in the church choir, and didn’t find out that she was Jewish until she was twelve years old. For her parents it was more benign neglect than a repudiation of their heritage as to why they did not raise their daughter to be Jewish.
The loneliness stemmed from a father eighteen years her mother’s senior whose life revolved around his work, and a life filled with whiskey, women and cigars. He loved his Gerta but she suffered from depressions that grew darker after she lost her adored baby brother, Bobby, who was betrayed by his best friend during the war who lured Bobby back to the border with the promise of giving him back his belongings. Bobby was shot dead at the border.
Haunted by a past of loneliness and neglect, Nicky somehow emerged as an extremely generous, positive and poetic person, passionately appreciating life’s beautiful gifts and taking comfort in her possessions, and her three daughters. Our father, Harold, 21 years her senior was quite the antithesis of the women in his family; a solid and humorous man with both feet standing solidly on the ground, and a desire to bring his family back to the planet they came from.