I had a different essay I was working on for this post. But in the process of cleaning my laptop desktop, I found this one I’d written in a Steve Almond workshop a few weeks ago. The prompt was a photo we were told to bring that morning. This is the photo, and my story.
This was the golden girl I did not become. The dress was the softest grey and pale pink. In this picture I hit my zenith of daughterly perfection. My willingness to be coiffed and posed sweetly and amiably. I would eventually find my own path, but the deeply planted desire-to-please would endure. It was hoped, I suppose, I would be a gem of a girl, meaning compliant, cheery, a husband to support me in a suburban home. “What’s wrong with that?” I can hear my mother ask even now.
For some reason(s), behind the blonde assimilationist exterior and despite an abundance of Arizona sunshine, my interior world ran dark. From a young age I thought about Jewish children riding trains to Auschwitz. I was born two years after the possibility of riding that train ended. But the images my mind conjured remain vivid to this day.
While culturally Jewish, ours was not a religious family. My version of Judaism – besides Chanukah Christmas and Passover – was that God wanted us to be good on earth not in order to get into heaven, but because it was the right way to live. By the time I was 8, my religious views were in place. Be good. Do good. Heaven probably didn’t exist.
We weren’t a family that prayed, but I surreptitiously prayed to God in bed each night because, well, you never know. It wasn’t a Jewish prayer, just a little prayer I learned somewhere, to a pretty secular God. Actually I believed in God about as much as I believed in Santa Claus. On Christmas eve, I always left a few cookies and a glass of milk for Santa, just in case. Prayers for God; cookies and milk for Santa. I did what I could. The thing is, I didn’t, but I wanted to believe.
I was the only Jewish girl in my school and seriously discouraged by my mother from wearing a Jewish star someone had given me. The necklace remained in its box. She said we didn’t need to advertise our religion. Maybe people didn’t know I was Jewish? Most people didn’t know Jews. That would be like knowing a Martian or knowing where Vietnam or Afghanistan was. Strange things like that weren’t known in the 1950s.
While people in Phoenix didn’t know Jews, they did know “dirty Jew” and they knew “kike” and they knew “he jewed me down”. I didn’t know “jewed me down” until I was 12 and a boy I was flirting with at the Sandpiper Motel in San Diego on our summer vacation was charming me with his storytelling. At one point he said “he jewed me down”. He must have seen the dark cloud cross my up-til-then bright eyes. I didn’t know what it meant, but I knew it wasn’t good. I didn’t want to embarrass him by pointing out that he’d hurt my feelings. My mind raced for a not-to-be found solution. Then I heard him say “Well, I’ve got to go.” I never saw him again. I assumed he hated me in the way that people who are prejudiced hate people they are prejudiced against. Or maybe his family’s vacation was simply over, and they had returned to Oklahoma, or wherever he was from.
Have you ever said something hurtful, maybe based in unconscious prejudice? Something you didn’t fully understand, but regretted the moment you said it?
I have. It took awhile to understand how someone (myself) who’d been the target of prejudice could also be guilty of it.
How maybe that boy at the motel was no more guilty than me. Or not. I’m guessing here.
Maybe I look Jewish in this picture. Some people can tell. Like Nazis I guess. I guess they had what could be called Jew-dar. Like some people now say gay-dar. The ability to sense a person’s intentionally hidden, or simply unknown identity. The identity that makes them vulnerable.
My school friends, I don’t know what they thought. I never discussed being Jewish with them, but they must have known I didn’t have my own church because they let me visit their churches with them. Mostly I liked the Mormons, because they seemed to like children. The Catholics not so much. I remember a lecture at a friend’s catechism class. The teacher, with his words, painted horrific images of burning in hell for eternity. The hour-long class felt like eternity. I was blown away by his description of damnation. I’m pretty sure that was the end of my church-going explorations.
The parents of my classmates? Turned out they all belonged to the John Birch Society, which was anti-semitic, racist, etc. Ku Klux Klan without the white robes and burning crosses. But I didn’t know that then. Only felt it.
I never became religious, or as the religious say, observant. But the Jewish identity stuck, and a determination not to be hidden.
What’s not in the above picture is how much rebellion there was in me. No one could possibly have known in the mid-fifties that the mid-sixties would change everything. When all good-girl-ness would be washed away by the great flood of hippies and political activism that arrived at the selfsame moment on most campuses and urban centers, along with drugs, sex, Janis Joplin, The Doors, and the Jefferson Airplane. In my heart of hearts, I still wanted to be a good girl. But I also wanted the freedom to figure out what this strange thing called life was. At 19, I escaped Phoenix. After a year in Chicago, I arrived in San Francisco. It was 1967.
Above, me in my earlier “badass” days. I was already being taught how to pose, but I had not fully learned the art of people-pleasing, or looking happy when I wasn’t. The sweatshirt? Vintage Hop-A-Long Cassidy.
I loved the pink and grey dress. The softness of the colors. Its prettiness. Blond hair that would eventually turn auburn, then almost black, now turning slowly, on genetic course with my paternal grandmother, to the inevitable grey. In the picture it’s softly curled with every strand in place, bangs femininely brushed to the side, ready for my photographer father to capture the image, believe it, and as Yoda suggested, make it real. They couldn’t.
To my parents dismay I embraced first a bohemian, then a hippie aesthetic and a wildness that drew from the hippie and left-wing activist worlds. Nothing like the image in this picture. The outside image was easy to change. The inside – that of having to please others – has been a lifetime’s work.
My journey feels personal, like the photo. But life has taught me it’s not, personal that is. I mean, it is, but it’s more than that. Most of us were raised by parents according to their dream of who we’d become. In the top photo, you can see their dream.
I write my story because I want to tell what really happened. Not the dream. I read Cheryl Strayed, Lidia Yuknavitch, and Julie Barton and hear not only their story (their goodness AND their badass-ness), but my own. For me the beauty of these great writers is not only their wonderful writing, but their blessing of shame-less wholeness, whatever their mistakes, whatever my mistakes. Not only the right to a shame-less life, but the right to a celebration of the whole of it, including the suffering and mistake-making. The reality, not the dream. The un-hiding of a life. Such a relief to have mentors and good company on this challenging journey. I am beyond grateful.