MORE ABOUT THIS BOOK
I was five years old, lingering at the Avenue U Variety Store, staring. My mother took me there a lot when she went shopping for household things. I made sure she saw me pining there in the toy aisle.
Because I was “artistic,” it was expected that more than anything else, I’d want whatever sort of art supplies the store kept in stock in those days: an assortment of chalky tempera paints that came in little jars packaged in shrink-wrap; waxy colored pencils that left nothing but translucent traces of color no matter how hard you pressed; oaktag in random colors; and tubes of glitter, which made my mother wince in anticipation of the mess I would no doubt make. I got paint-by-number sets that were too advanced for my age. I got real toys, too, things like Colorforms and an “age-appropriate” Erector set with scary pointed metal edges that full-grown adults might maim themselves with; today that set would be banned. I got all kinds of toys and games. I wasn’t deprived, but the thing I wanted more than anything, the thing that eluded me to that point, was a Barbie doll.
The deluxe Barbie set came with a doll and three changes of clothes. Barbie herself was frozen in clear molded plastic, stuck to a cardboard background, dressed in a zebra-printed bathing suit with snap-on black pumps that seemed to go with everything. On one side of the cardboard was a polka-dot sundress on a tiny hanger, and on the other side a fabulous mink-cuffed, gold-brocade, knee-length coat.
My mother reluctantly took notice of my lingering. She looked over with a dark expression, another hint that there was something wrong with this yearning of mine. We’d had the conversation before, more than once, with the standard conclusion: “Boys don’t play with dolls.” But I desperately wanted to play with dolls, and she knew that. No matter how long I stared at that Barbie, my mother didn’t flinch. But I kept my hopes up. On Hanukkah that year I was given a G.I. Joe, a consolation prize that I never played with the way I was supposed to. The first thing I did was lose the little Uzi; it mysteriously disappeared, and I never made a great effort to find it, since I had no plans to send him into battle. I wanted him out of that dreary camouflage print, but there didn’t seem to be any alternatives. His body wasn’t the right shape, he had a thick waist, no breasts, and even though I tried for a day or two to change his appearance, it was hopeless. No magic. Joe languished forever after in the toy bin.
Around my sixth birthday I was back at the Avenue U Variety Store with my mother. She was shopping for something mundane like a Pyrex dish or a new nozzle for a hose. I was holding the doll again. It was a starter Barbie, a kind of rudimentary presentation, in a long box, like a coffin, with a cellophane window and only the dress she was wearing: a simple pink, yellow, and olive-green plaid sleeveless job with a slightly high-waisted dirndl skirt and the ever-present black pumps. Perhaps the fact that it wasn’t the grand deluxe set, that it seemed humbler, more manageable, appealed to my mother’s sense of propriety. I presented it to her, and she took the toy and held it tentatively for a long time, on the verge of a remark. Finally she tossed it in her handcart, which I took as assent. I stayed cool on the outside, but on the inside I was hopping up and down with joy. I measured the minutes it would take to get from that spot—out of the danger zone of her changing her mind—back to the security and privacy of my bedroom, which I shared with my sisters, but I knew I’d have it all to myself till they got home from school.
We went up to the cash register to pay for it. My heart beat faster, my neck tensed for fear that anything should interfere with the transaction. The old man at the register, decrepit-looking, with a cigarette hanging from his lips, leered at my mother and said, “Will that be it, honey?”
The word “honey” hung in the air and irritated me to such an extent that it was physical. My eyes itched, the back of my throat went numb. My mother ignored the sleazy endearment, but I couldn’t. I burned. And finally I boiled over. Stamping my foot I screamed, “She’s not your honey!” A few seconds of dead air, then shock registered on the guy’s face, then a greasy smile. He patted my head, which made me want to bite him. I knew my mother could take care of herself, she was no shrinking violet, but I was outraged that this stranger would take that kind of liberty and think nothing of it, as if he were entitled.
One benefit of my outburst was that it distracted attention from the Barbie transaction, and before she knew it, my mother was paying for the parcel and out the door. She left the Avenue U Variety Store taller, with pride that I’d defended her honor. And like a dog who disappears with a hard-won bone, the minute we got home, I raced to my bedroom to play with Barbie undisturbed.
I approached Barbie not like another pretty face. Of course I made her dresses, but I made up stories for her, too. She was the woman I dreamed of being or befriending. I transformed her with outfits I made from scraps of fabrics and paper I found around the house. One day my mother shortened a dress made of pale-blue crystal-pleated chiffon that she got to wear to an important event associated with my father’s business. The scraps were too wonderful to throw away, and she gave them to me. I was thrilled by those scraps and knew immediately what to do. I made Barbie a floor-length boatneck sheath with a fluted hem. I crudely stitched a broad sash that closed with snaps in the back. My focus on constructing that dress was laserlike. I made up a story about how Barbie was wearing the dress to a very important party that would clinch her great success. For fleeting moments I forgot about my mother’s angst surrounding my attention to the doll. I was caught up with how best to style Barbie’s hair, how lucky she was to have that tiny waist and those long legs, and how well she carried off that blue dress despite the black pumps, which I wished could have been gold or silver or, at the very least, bone.
I proudly presented Barbie in the crystal-pleated chiffon dress to my mother. She acknowledged it with a half-smile, accompanied by a distinctive whiff of misunderstanding. For a long while around my father, I pretended that Barbie belonged to one of my sisters. I don’t think he ever realized the doll was actually mine. It was a well-kept secret, our secret, my mother’s and mine. We didn’t—couldn’t—let on to the others. She was protecting me, but more, she was struggling with her own past—a past that didn’t embrace effeminate little boys, a past that did nothing to prepare her for dealing with such a son.
* * *
To hear her tell it, my mother and I have a lot in common with the biblical Sarah and Isaac. She was named Sarah after her father’s mother, and I was named Isaac after my father’s father, a coincidence not lost on our family and friends. And the parallels don’t end there, according to her dramatic version. In 1961 my mother’s doctor considered her to be on the old side for childbirth. She was thirty-six and in good shape, but she was told that having me, her third child, was a risk. It was one she accepted, just as the older Sarah of the Bible took a risk in having her Isaac. My mother was fond of quoting her doctor on the subject. According to him, if we survived I was destined to be either “a genius or a Mongoloid.”
We came through childbirth unscathed, but shortly after there was one dramatic and life-threatening event that shaped my perception of the world and especially my relationship with my mother. At the age of four I was stricken with spinal meningitis. The story goes that one morning I couldn’t lift my head off the pillow, I ran a very high fever that wouldn’t break, and eventually I couldn’t be revived from a deep, mysterious sleep. My mother panicked and called the family pediatrician, Dr. Bernard Greenberg, who made a snap diagnosis over the phone and instructed my parents to take me immediately to the emergency room at Maimonides Medical Center in Brooklyn. There’s a bit of extra suspense that my mother loves to insert into the tale—about how they couldn’t find parking at the hospital, and how my father ran for blocks, carrying my limp body in his arms. He was the hero of the tale, getting me there just in the nick of time for the doctor to inject me full of antibiotics and save my life. I’m not exactly sure why that detail was worth embroidering onto the already dramatic tale. I think it was my mother’s attempt to prove how much my father loved me. But over the years it came across more as a hard sell. For one thing, wouldn’t anyone run a few blocks if they had a dying child in their arms?
My mother says she never fully recovered from the trauma and describes those days of my illness as the worst of her life. “I wouldn’t wish it on anyone.” She reacted to the experience in contradictory ways. She overcompensated, examining every cough and sigh. She had Dr. Greenberg on a short leash and was on the phone with him constantly. On the other side of the spectrum, perhaps to purposely distract herself from what she perceived as my physical vulnerability, she and my father went out a lot. I remember missing her, worrying about when she would return, wishing she’d stay home. I’d carry on and she’d say, “Relax, we’re not going to Canarsie,” which always struck me as funny, since Canarsie, far as it was from where we lived in the Midwood neighborhood of Brooklyn, was not nearly as far as Manhattan, where my parents were actually going. I’d lie awake, sweaty with fear and anxiety, waiting to hear the familiar sound of the car pulling into the driveway.
My mother was deeply anxious about my physical and emotional health. She’d warn against overexertion, and when I was “all sweated up,” she’d make me sit still for ten minutes before going out into the cold. Yet when I was actually sick she’d accuse me of pretending. “You’re such an actor!” she’d say with a withering look. I was accused of “acting” a lot, whenever I cried or carried on, to the extent that I got confused myself between when I was actually sick and when I was faking it. When she couldn’t understand something I was feeling she attributed it to my overly dramatic nature—which, ironically, I got from her. And though she encouraged me to be independent, she also liked knowing what I was up to. She convinced herself that I was fine without her, but then was loath to admit it.
Most of the time she rejected the stereotypical role of the overbearing Jewish mother and seemed to want instead to be a best friend or mentor. This, too, was meted out in contradictory ways. She’d lull me into a sense of friendship, encouraging me in my creative pursuits, and then pull the mother card, stressing the importance of conforming to the family and its preconceived, traditional ideas. She was my cheerleader, filling me with her confidence if I lacked my own. But she felt too bound by the traditions of her upbringing to give me the consistent acknowledgment I needed. However she did it, she helped mold me into a functioning artist. Whether it was direct encouragement, or more commonly, a coded glance or a mysterious comment that helped me to think or act independently. Throughout, though, I could sense how much easier our lives would have been if only I’d been like other boys.
But I wasn’t. And for as often as I know this caused her pain, she also related to it, because my mother felt different herself. Simply put, she and I have chemistry—an affinity. She’s a woman of words. And wit. And some tricks. And the sands sometimes shift among these attributes. A trick she used many times: If someone called on the phone whom she didn’t want to speak to, she would turn on the kitchen tap and bring the receiver close to it and say, “I’m sorry I can’t talk to you right now. I’m frying.” It was the perfect excuse to hang up, and it fooled everyone across the board. I use it to this day.
We amuse each other to no end, and for all of my childhood and much of my young adulthood, I was her companion. Her confidant. I gave her a sympathetic ear. We spent a lot of time together, and I’m not sure who was more needy of the other. We shared secrets and protected each other from the family, who had some difficulty fathoming us: her, this erudite, sophisticated woman; and me, this creative, effeminate little boy. The confidence we shared cemented a bond, but complicated a traditional mother-son relationship. For all the nights I remember her seated at the edge of my bed, stroking my forehead, comforting me when I awakened from a nightmare, I also remember as many times when she was hard-selling me the virtues of the Syrian-Jewish community we lived in. Next she’d go on about how intellectually let down she was by her peer group, then she would obsess about marrying my sisters off by the ripe age of twenty. We had a great friendship, but I rarely felt like her “son,” and she was never purely my “mother.”
We do look alike. Anyone would know instantly that we are mother and son. We have the same deep-set eyes. Hers are hazel green, mine go that color when I’m tired or on tranquilizers. I thank her genetic pool for my thick head of hair. All through my childhood she had a dyed black bubble coif. The styling varied a bit from decade to decade—higher in the sixties, slightly curlier in the seventies—but the sheer volume of hair, which she gets from both her parents, bodes well for me into my old age. Even today, at ninety-one, she has a goodly head of it. All her brothers and sisters and I have the same high, thick waist and long, stalky legs. The same small mouth and hook nose. Together we look like a flock of birds. Jewish flamingos.
* * *
When I was about seven and a half we moved to a new house and, not long after that, my habit of not sleeping well became a regular part of life. Every Saturday morning I would rise at the crack of dawn and wait for TV to start up (those were the days when most TV stations shut down at midnight). I’d watch one show starting at 4:00 A.M. that taught foreigners how to speak English. Finally, around 6:00 A.M., more kid-appropriate things would appear—shows I loved, like Dodo, the Kid From Outer Space and The Patchwork Family. By 8:30 I’d have set the table for two and begun cooking an elaborate breakfast for my mother. The rest of the family wouldn’t rise till much later, so Saturday mornings meant quality time for us.
Sometimes I’m unduly influenced by the sounds of words. I like to say I became a designer based on how much I loved the sound of the word taffeta. I heard the word first spoken at breakfast by my mother, who assumed I knew what it meant. The word filled my head with curiosity, and when I discovered taffeta the fabric, the properties of it, it was the first step in my obsessive study of textiles. Around that time I heard the word “sauté” spoken on TV by Julia Child and looked it up in the Encyclopedia Britannica, which stood in the den in a little self-contained wood-veneered bookshelf that came with the set. What I found was more than a definition; there was an illustrated step-by-step guide. At once I taught myself to sauté vegetables and began adding them to our Saturday-morning scrambled eggs, which I knew would please my mother. She and I acknowledged sautéed vegetables in scrambled eggs were goo-ah-may. I also precociously learned to brew coffee, and to this day I hoard percolators.
The table setting was important, too. Pouring the milk into a creamer was a fancy touch, and I always remembered her saccharin: tiny white pellets contained in a ceramic pillbox painted with a scene of a girl on a swing suspended from the branch of a tree. In the springtime I would cut some of the orange tiger lilies that grew along the edge of the garage to add to the table setting.
It was over these breakfasts that our great friendship flourished. My mother told me stories of her childhood. She described her obsession with books and talked about her library card the way others talk about their passports. These stories conjured images of a middle-class, Jewish Francie Nolan, the heroine of A Tree Grows In Brooklyn, out on a fire escape night after summer night, eating apples and reading books. She would tell me about her early adulthood and her courtships. She spoke about her frustrations with my father and his lack of interest in art and literature. She confided in me when we had cash-flow problems. There were definitely conversations which might have seemed inappropriate for an eight-year-old, but I also remember it was later at one of these breakfasts that she, not my father, told me about the birds and the bees. She insisted that the act only happened as result of a feeling of love, and she said it was something I would eventually want to do. From the description, I found that hard to believe at the time, but to this day I’m impressed by the pure and appealing way she framed the subject. I think one of the reasons I have such a good and guiltless attitude toward sex is because of this first description.
My mother was the most fascinating person on the planet. I hung on her every word. She’s a gifted raconteuse and, simply put, she charmed me. She trained me to be her best friend. Ever since, so many of the friendships I’ve had with women mirror this early dynamic. It runs very deep. I live to be confided in, to bolster a woman’s ego, to be asked advice—whether it’s about a dress or a deeper, more profound matter. Since this early bond with my mother, I’ve found myself in many similar friendships in which I’m beholden to a woman who makes herself the emotional center of my life, and me the center of hers. It recurs with varying degrees of success, satisfaction, and neuroses.
During our breakfast tête-a-têtes, my mother often expounded on her theories of style and culture, which I absorbed like a willing disciple, if not a stalkerish fan. While it clearly pained her that my father didn’t make enough money to keep up with her wealthier friends, she also warned me against becoming “materialistic.” It was a subtle distinction, the wafer-thin line between loving clothes, which my mother surely did, and being “too obsessed.” She warned me never to take these style issues too seriously, lest I be labeled Shallow. Though a pared-down look was fashionable in those days, I often think my mother’s aversion to displays of excess was her way of feeling superior to the women who had way more money, more clothes, better houses, etc. It was how she reassured herself that she had an intangible edge. And my artistic sensibilities—this line I skate between the dignified and the over-the-top—began with these discussions on Saturday mornings. It was drummed into my head that being smart trumped all else; wit and nerve were the most important elements of style; and money was not everything.
Copyright © 2019 by Isaac Mizrahi