Chapter Three: Living in a Fairy Tale
My childhood was its own fairytale. Yes, it’s true, I grew up in a fairytale within a fairytale.
My two sisters and I grew up in Massachusetts in a white house set up high on a hill. A white picket fence enclosing our mother’s wonderfully British bright and cheery hand-planted gardens. She was always in the garden with a colorful handkerchief tied on her head to keep her hair back, and playing by her side in the yard were her three little girls, of whom she adored, and their German Pointer, Stormy, an untrained hyperactive love bug, who just happened to only bite uniformed people like the milkman, the postman, and the trashman.
The house with blue shutters on Overbrook Road, Longmeadow, Massachusetts was as idyllic as it sounds. The back door was the entrance to a sunny kitchen where skylights let in the sun, and windows framing the backyard with blueberry bushes and a terraced area where I put on Zoom plays for the neighborhood.
In the middle of the house was a wide staircase, our indoor playground when we came in from the outdoors. Under the paintings we sledded down the stairs as fast as we could on our bums, or we played jail games with our dolls through the bannister rails. When our parents would throw a dinner party, we would get in our flannel pj’s, and gather our pillows, stuffed animals and lay with Stormy at the top of those stairs and listen to our parents entertaining their friends.
My mother, who I am so happy to say is still alive and well has always had wonderful dinner parties, filled with intellectual conversations about 19th Century art, current affairs, antiques, and films and books. The dining room was the perfect size, with an antique Hunt table of the richest, most beautiful wood. Of course, it was covered with the finest of linen table clothes, Baccarat wine glasses, and my favorite … in front of every place setting stood petite enameled salt and pepper shakers in brilliant shades of red and blue.
Beaded napkin holders held linen napkins with lace edging, to the side were silver utensils that my sisters and I would polish prior to any dinner party. The china had a light blue and gold rim with dragons flying around. In the centerpiece stood crystal candlesticks and always fresh flowers.
The insects that my mother loved to collect appeared on the side tables; a giant copper ant, gold sculpted bees on marble stands, and encased tarantulas and other enormous furry spiders. On the walls hung my mother’s art collection; 19th Century Fairy Art with fantastical painted images canvassed with iridescent wings and evil-spirited spindly creatures, peaking out from behind gnarled tree trunks in the thick of dark misty forests, painted by; 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 its own theater of magic and mystery.
At the table Harold would have everyone crying from laughter, but there was one particular evening, where he, 21 years my mother’s senior (born in 1917) must have thought it was time for everyone to leave, so he disappeared for a bit, and reappeared in his silk pajamas and a shower cap, just in case the guests didn’t get the hint by the clock that it was time to leave. That was my father, and I was very much like him.
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.