Not a Success As a Jew

I’m adopted, though I look remarkably like my dark-eyed, straight-haired parents, Sam and Brynna Benmidich.  It had never been a secret.  As soon as I could decode words they told me that though they were my mom and dad I had a biological mother, a young Jewish girl who had searched high and low for a Jewish family for the child she was too young to care for herself.  

My favorite childhood possession was a book that my parents had ordered from a company that marketed especially to adopting families who pay to have the particulars of their child’s history typeset into a personalized account.  The storybook arrived with my own name on the cover in pink block letters: KARLI, a thrilling thing in and of itself.  But even more wonderful, when opened the book told the story of a young and beautiful Jewish girl who knew that she could not raise the daughter she loved so she had courageously searched until she found the perfect parents for her baby—Sam and Brynna Benmidich!  This is what mommies do, my mother had told me as we read the book over and over.  They do what’s best for their children, no matter what.  She had had the presence of mind to add that my journey was finished and that I would never be given to any one else as long as we lived.  You’re a Benmidich, my mother had said, hugging me at the conclusion of every reading.  Forever and ever.   The book was the foundation of my earliest bed-time routine.  For years I put it under my pillow at night, imagining the selfless sorrow of my teenaged mother, her care in choosing Sam and Brynna as the best possible parents for me, her little girl.   So I was raised a Long Island Jew whose mother wanted her to grow up, to pick a surgical specialty and a nice man and to live happily ever after, hopefully no more than two towns away from her parents. 

I wasn’t a success as a Jew.  Temple services lasted for hours until I struck on the strategy of fainting mid-way through in order to be released.   I didn’t even have to fake it at the beginning.  The aromatic pressing crowd, the mumbling swaying davening, the smell of Mrs. Greenblatt’s Chanel—I learned to calibrate my attention so it focused on the things most likely to bring me to the brink of unconsciousness.  My parents didn’t press the issue because they weren’t terribly religious and unconscious children are alarming.  Shul attendance ramped down.  We became the kind of Jews who light candles on Friday night but then switch on the lights, eat takeout Chinese that has clearly made use of shellfish, and then go out to the movies.   Chags like Pesach or Yom Kippur were observed more in honor of my parents’ childhood memories than out of religious sensibilities.  Brynna and Sam leaned more toward Science than Faith, but they believed in tradition even if they were lukewarm about ideas like God.  Before Passover I would be harnessed to a vacuum cleaner and set to finding crumbs of leavened bread that might have fallen into book bindings or behind a couch.  The plates that had touched meat were quarantined under my parents’ bed until the whole thing was over.  When I protested that this contradicted their true relationship with Judaism, they told me that this was the way that their mothers had done things.  I tried every ruse to avoid this ritualized cleansing.  The only excuse that worked was schoolwork, which for my mom and dad had a kind of sacred authority.  I was regularly told that my future would probably be in surgery but if I wanted to go into something with better hours, like dermatology, they could accept that.  My mother is an obstetrical gynocologist.  My dad is a pediatrician.  We just want you to be happy, they would say.     

Like most children, I managed to approach but not scale their hopes for me. 

I know that my mother loves me in an unreasoning way, which has not always been a happy arrangement for me.  Having her emotional state in my hands has been an unwelcome power.  A child with Daughter Radar can feel her effect on her mother but not control it, and something about power over your own mother is as creepy as it is thrilling.  It confuses your sense of what you’re actually responsible for.  Mom would come home with some sadness that was entirely unrelated to my nine or ten-year old self but because I was nine or ten and an egomaniac, my take on it would be that it had to have been caused by me.   Then guilt, sleeplessness, sulky wall-kicking afternoons. 

The flip side of this was the heady experience of making my mom happy just by beaming happiness at her.  She’d ask how my day was and I could say great, because it made her smile.   Maybe that day I was feeling generous because I got a 97 on my science quiz.   Maybe I just wanted to see her pleased because I love her. 

Over the years my mom and I became both more intimate and more mysterious to one another.  And because the boundary between child and mother is so permeable, sometimes it’s been hard to tell who felt what.  Sometimes when I made Brynna Benmidich sad it broke my heart at the same time that it satisfied me deeply.  Sometimes we were kind with one another, and poured our respective happinesses right onto the other’s hands.   That, I have admitted since becoming a mother myself, is the most generous thing you can offer your mother--evidence of your own happiness.  The reverse is also true.  

When I told my parents about my intention to apply to vet school, my gentle father stepped forward and took my part.  What point is there in a medical specialty that lets you drive around in a Jaguar if you’re a miserable person? he’d said to his wife.  Let the girl go.

 My dad understood.  Sam Benmidich might be a pediatrician, but he had never entirely outgrown his childhood dream of being a fire fighter.  Even in his forties he hadn’t shed all of his sparky tendencies and if he and I were alone in the car when a clanging fire truck barreled by, we’d follow.  The day he took my part about my professional future I could see my mother looking at him in a way that meant she was weighing whether or not to fight harder when that meant taking on Daddy as well as me.  I saw her face soften as she listened to him—she trusted him as well as loved him.  She knew that he was usually right on the few instances when he contradicted her.  She waved a hand at me and said, “So go be a dog doctor.  Save the gerbils of America.  Fine.  Fine,” and I knew I’d made her sad.  I did it anyhow. 

 I love my dad in an uncomplicated, wholly cheerful way.   I often think of him as a large and intelligent dog.  Don’t mistake this as condescension.  I’m somebody who has always been happy around dogs and impressed with their resilient, cheerful characters.  I adore my dad.  But my main point about my dad as opposed to my mom is that when he pads into a room the mood is entirely secure once you’ve moved the tail-level conversational vases to higher shelves.  When my mom steps into a situation I find myself readjusting, moving, weighing.  Maybe it’s just me, but I don’t think so.  

I went to vet school.  I tried to make up for this disappointment to my mom by accommodating her hopes about my romantic life.  When she asked me if I was seeing anyone I told her about Benny--his graduate work in chemical engineering, his three sisters who all went into hotel management, his divorced parents and his vintage Mustang.  There was no Benny.  I tinkered with Benny’s finer points in response to her reactions to my stories.   The Mustang gave him endless difficulty, for example, because she was tickled by the idea of an oil-smeared young man working on a cranky status automobile.  So I arranged for the Mustang to break down a lot.  I calibrated all Benny stories based to match my idea of what she wanted.  The most awkward thing about spending a lot of time and energy building a nonexistent lover is that the lover’s nonexistence makes you disappear—a tangled description, I know, of how I felt when my mom talked about Benny.  That person in her mind who loved somebody named Benny didn’t exist.  Eventually, of course, I invented a sad breakup story and that was that for Benny.

In the midst of what could be the most intimate relationship in the universe, we struggle to become invisible to one another and then, sadly, we often succeed.  That was me and Mom.  The bond begins in a kind of tropical heat—the helpless baby and the lioness protector, seeing one another through a lens entirely free of intellectual analysis.  The relationship is chemical, mesmerizing.  If it were otherwise, of course, you’d be seeing a lot of babies being pitched off roofs by exhausted and tormented caretakers.     

In the concrete terms of daily life this means that for a long time Mom and I chatted about the nonexistent Benny.  Then in my last year of veterinary school there actually was someone—a someone I understood she would regard as a disaster, but I refused to miss the disaster on her account.  The man was a poet, and even after I was sure I was going to marry him I prattled on with my mother about the nonexistent Benny.  I protected and betrayed her at once, a part of me understanding even then that I protected and betrayed myself when I acted like this because there was still, maybe there will be always, places in our minds that blur and knot where she should stop and I begin.  I couldn’t let her wedge her self between me and this man. 

I had been on my way to the library when I saw an arrow on a billboard propped up in a hall and I followed it.   Poetry Reading, it said, and then an entirely unfamiliar name.  To this day I have no idea why I turned and followed the signs into a room with about a dozen people clustered around my future husband.  They shed cigarette ash and little scraps of paper and none of their clothes seemed to have been originally purchased for the person wearing them now.  I don’t believe in love at first sight but something inside me shook awake and jumped off its shelf at the sight of that man.  It felt like whatever it was that jumped had been sitting there all along, waiting for him.  

He had never lit a minorah or scraped a horse’s teeth, as I had.  I had never thought of the world as being run by invisible forces, as he did.  He found me as exotic as I found him and we plunged heedlessly forward.  I had just turned twenty-two and was about to graduate.  He had just published a poem in his first nationally distributed magazine.  I fell in love.  

Just before we married I took him home to meet Sam and Brynna.  Mom pulled me aside and pointed out that we were Long Island Jews and he was from Mississippi, a man from the kind of people who put Wonder Bread on the table with their overdone pork.  Being a poet carried no weight with her.  She had met poets, she told me soberly, and they didn’t age well.  Not most of them.  This impulsive behavior was unlike me, she added, shaking her head to punctuate her surprise.

I have sometimes thought that if my mother hadn’t said those things about him that the headier fumes would have cleared over time and the poet and I might have parted of our own free wills.  She did say them though, and I would not be managed and trampled by her efforts to protect me from myself.  I thought that if I were separated from this man that I would die.  At the time it’s possible that I would have.  So in the end, Mom and I played out the old, old parts exactly like the cartoon clichés—young girl in love, disapproving parent, blahblahblah.  

My immovable position echoed the one taken by children of critical parents everywhere.  I was happy, and if she loved me, that should be enough for her.  Such was my silly thinking.  I wanted to be beheld exactly as I wanted to see myself and if she wasn’t able to do that I was willing to blame her for any unhappiness that might follow.  Looking back I have thought that she did see me but she didn’t want me to be the kind of woman who would fall in love with the poet because to her way of thinking that kind of woman was a ninny.  Just to get from day to day during this period I could feel my mother erasing the part of me she couldn’t look at and struggling to occupy the rebellious territories of my mind she could not erase, thus making this whole mishuga period of my life disappear.  I loved her.  We were enmeshed in an ancient relationship whose looping shape and terrible authority were beyond our control.  She wanted part of me to vanish; I did what I could but that only ended up disconnecting my capacity to think logically.  You’re unaware when you start this kind of behavior of how dangerous it can be in the long run. 

We sat down to plan the wedding but the way her face looked, the way she dragged the pen across the paper as we made lists and negotiated music and entrees and table settings all just enraged me.  She wouldn’t come out and fight me but she wouldn’t take the effort to act pleased for me either.  She didn’t actually have to be happy.  I knew that was an unreasonable hope—not fair to her.  All I wanted was for her to pretend. 

In the end I sabotaged her completely, sacrificing all the cash she and dad had put down in deposits and leaving the expensive wedding gown in its box on the floor of my childhood closet.  I asked him to elope and of course this appealed to his poetic spirit.  Also he did not like my mother.  We were married in a city hall anteroom and I found myself pregnant within weeks.  My beloved wrote a villanelle about the pregnancy, which was very good, actually.  When we were divorcing he spoke about this poem as one of the great successes of the marriage.   

When Aydin and Sybil were born I fell in love again, this time with them, but the poet did not.  He had no more curiosity about his own offspring than male dragonflies or hamsters might have about their progeny.   I was as stunned by his indifference as I would have been had he sprouted wings or grown fur.   I had started work as an associate in a mixed large and small animal practice right after the wedding, but the pregnancy wreaked havoc with the work.  I was pasty and disoriented.  My feet swelled, my digestive system failed me regularly and three times in a single week I was found simply standing in the supply room, staring at a wall.  Once I went to the bathroom and fell asleep in a stall, waking an hour later after having missed three patient appointments and a frantic search for me.  I felt as if the babies had cast a spell that had a variety of effects:  I fell asleep frequently in a state that felt more like being knocked unconscious than resting, words like “tunafish” and “door” flew out of my mind, I found the coffee pot I’d been searching for stashed neatly among the plates in my cupboard or maybe on the first shelf of the refrigerator.   The babies had taken control of my body and I struggled against them with all that remained of my mind. 

This was not a time or place where things like flexible schedules or paid pregnancy leaves were on employers’ to-do lists.  I was told that I wasn’t carrying my own weight, which was true.  But then again there were two human beings in my body besides me and one of them had his feet lodged firmly in my ribs. 

When I was fired I told myself that I would never have been able to continue anyway, so nauseated for the first six months that I couldn’t navigate my way further than our apartment front door without a plastic bowl.  Then the twins’ birth, the immersion in the relentless needs of infant humans, my husband’s distancing himself from us.  And bills.  “Bills” is the polite way to say it.  It was poverty, with a fringe of whatever glamour might have been attached to things like youth, poetry readings and occasional publications.  We started to argue about work—his not looking for it, my not being in a position to get it.  For months I had been nursing the babies, staggering anemically along without more than an hour and a half of sequential sleep.  Though we lived under the same roof, he was living in a different country, a rested nation without diapers and earaches and withering looks from the receptionist at the pediatrician’s who knew you hadn’t paid your last bill and you were unlikely to pay the approaching one.  

My poet husband was also missing the quiet romance of rocking a baby in the middle of the night, alone in a noiseless world with a beloved and snoring little human draped over your chest.  Some of the happiest hours of my life were given to me when Aydin passed a potent viral infection to his sister and I rocked them sequentially through the centers of a dozen nights in a row, watching the stars move slowly across the sky.  I held the babies and creaked through those glittering hours feeling sure I was doing exactly what I should be doing, where I should be doing it.  I had never in my life felt like this, so simply present in the time and place I physically occupied.  Any concern in the universe beyond the limits of this nursery was irrelevant.  My children offered me total relief from the nagging, insistent voice of what I’d called myself before they were born. 

“I know,” my mother nodded when I tried to explain it to her.  “I’ve been there.”

When the twins were five months old, just past the size of decent roaster chickens, a tiny academic outpost in Nebraska offered my husband a job.  They named a salary figure that was so good my immediate reaction to it was grateful tears.  He turned it down.  I asked him to take it, because it was a job, even if it was in a Nebraska backwater, and it might lead to another job at a better university.  Still he refused.   He would be unhappy there, he protested, isolated in ways that were not good for his work. 

Well, I knew about isolation and I knew about things happening in your life that didn’t contribute to a series of sparkling professional triumphs.  I argued again for the Nebraska outpost.  There were steaks in Nebraska, and reasonable rents, so if we lived there we afford to go out and eat one of those steaks.  I could imagine it all and I stood there and offered up this argument, and I’m sure that as I was speaking the cowlicky thing that happens at the back of my hair was going on.  Sweatpants, spit-up stains and reddened eyes probably completed the whole picture. 

  I shouldn’t have been surprised when he ran but I was.  I have a persistent faithful nature, a border collie-ish way of seeing the world.  And I loved the poet.  I knew he regarded Aydin and Sybil as curiosities—possibly interesting but unconnected, really, to him.  I knew he slept through their crying, had been busy when the first high fever sent Aydin to the doctor, had taken no pleasure in their solid blinking physical selves.  Still I loved him.  I saw that there had been times when he’d experienced my pregnancy and the twins’ birth as things that distracted me from him and were physically alarming.  A part of him that he didn’t even admit existed had been waiting for me to turn away from this preoccupation with keeping the infant children alive so I could go back to being his lover. 

I knew all that but I’d considered it irrelevant, temporary, dismissable.  I was entirely stunned when he asked for a divorce.  He said the words, I turned away from him and walked directly into the twins’ bedroom and sat in the rocker.  From this seat I could hear the door close behind him as he went out.  I could listen to the babies’ breathing as they slept.  He moved into a friend’s apartment that afternoon and never came back.

I spent three weeks on my back in bed, rising only to respond to the twins’ most pressing needs.  His abandonment felt like an enormous, barely controlled body of fluid inside my head, held back from flooding by levees so fragile that every storm threatened their collapse.  I was alone with two turnippy babies and I was their grownup.  I knew I had to get up.  I had to get a firm grip on the part of me that was occupied by the poet and I had to push it over a kind of cliff in my mind.    

The poet went to his mother for cash, hired a lawyer and had the marriage dissolved in less than six months.  I was alone with my toddlers and my growing terror, which was blunted a bit by an illogical grudge—a conviction that somehow my mother was part of the reason that things had turned out like this.   I lugged as much of my idea of the poet as I could down into a room in the basement of my head, climbed the synaptic stairs back up into my waking life and I closed the door.  There was no comfort in knowing that I’d actually loved him.

For a while I read the kinds of magazines that his work might appear in.  He wrote a handful of beautiful letters, but when I gained a foothold on my dignity again and reread them they seemed full only of his own sensibilities, his own obsessive attention to language.  Thechildren and I occupied no living part of his mind as he composed them.  He fulfilled all my expectations of child support, which meant we received none at all.    

 Ultimately I realized I was in the kind of trouble you can’t navigate on your own.  Sleep deprived, broke, isolated with my beautiful but lumpenly dependent toddlers, I’d looked in the mirror one day and seen a woman looking back whom I myself would have crossed the street to avoid.  I had just survived Sybil’s third earache in as many months and my expression was blotchily disoriented.   I remember feeling frightened for myself as I picked up the telephone and called my mother. 

The mere sound of her voice on the line undid me and I started crying.  “We’re coming over,” she had said.  “This will not do.” She’d packed Daddy into the car, driven directly to my apartment, cooked us all a two a.m. breakfast and led a family meeting on how to divide the responsibilities of caring for two babies and three careers until I could hire help.   I could see that my situation fed some powerful energy in her.  She brought roasted eggplant and put it into an omelet with feta and parsley, piled Turkish sweetbread by its side and insisted I drink coffee and pay attention.  I’d lit something in her.   I felt safe for the first time in a long time.   

Within eight weeks Mom and Dad had helped me find a house closer to them, the twins and I had moved there, and my parents were snarled up in the babies’ schedules.  They began to deflect conversations about nannies or daycare.  I got a job at a small animal hospital.  It happened quickly, all in the midst of my most sleep-deprived and battered condition.  I was helpless to resist them.  Mom renegotiated her patient and surgery load; Dad shifted more of his patients to his three partners and abbreviated his hours.  Their friends watched in amazement as the European vacations and designer clothes disappeared and the stories about naptime battles and adventures with squirrels in the park multiplied.

I got calmer.  I wasn’t alone any more.  I was weak with gratitude and resentful of their competent generosity, or perhaps of my need for their competent generosity.  I couldn’t really distinguish.  From the beginning my folks were in love with the whole mess.  And though I often thought I should dislodge them from my daily life and stand on my own, the fact was that my ability to be my family’s breadwinner rested on the piles of schedules and assignment sheets that we sifted and revised every week--the chaotic hustling toddler-pass-off.  The years went on and our three-parent, two-child household continued.  Mom got crabby about plastic horses underfoot and Dad wasn’t so good at remembering that Fluff went with peanut butter and not jelly, but they aced the real messes.  If Aydin or Sybil came home from school devastated from a playground fight or convinced that trying to understand fractions was going to destroy their lives, Mom and Dad were their refuge.  

Once or twice men asked me out and I accepted, but the hopeful suitors ended up falling off my day-to-day life like things left too close to a table’s edge—crumbs, books, newspapers, men.  My psychological elbows nicked them every time and over they’d go.  I hurried home to my children, my micro-waved popcorn and my laundry.  Men made me anxious in ways that looked, to the casual observer, like irritation.  They threw the delicate balance of my life out of whack.

Unlike life at home, work was a paradise of order: generally predictable hours, obedient and sometimes even respectful pet owners, anxious dogs, crabby parrots, diffident cats.  People made appointments and came to me with discrete problems that in most cases could actually be solved.  I was at ease in the face of a contorting and biting hundred pound animal.  At the hospital I was master of all I surveyed, no hairball or convulsing guinea pig beyond my powers.  

I’d come to Tom’s hospital as an associate, fresh from my parents stepping in to save my life, relatively inexperienced and somewhat dangerous to the animals I treated.  I’d been attracted to the size of his small animal practice (large) and its proximity to my home base.  I’d fantasized about working in a mixed large and small animal practice, but Brynna argued against it and she was right.  The large animal practices on Long Island were way out toward the horsey and boutique alpaca-herd Hamptons, too far from her and my dad, she said; colic and palpations resisted scheduling and had a nasty habit of needing attention in the middle of the night.  In the end I had made a wide circle on the map around my new neighborhood and I’d found Tom.  

Right from the beginning it worked.  We discovered, together, that I was good with the pet owners, good at knowing when I needed help and when I could do something on my own.  The sober rigidity that made people avoid me in social situations worked in my favor here where a stern expression looked mature and reasoned.  Here in the animal hospital the ground beneath my feet firmed up a bit.    

 Linda, our hospital administrator, told me that Tom had run through five associates in as many years before he found me.  Fearful of becoming number six, I kept the twins a secret for almost five months.  I followed every week’s work schedule meeting with Tom with a household schedule meeting with Mom and Dad, choreographing the complex dance that kept the kids in some adult’s care.  My parents’ house was exactly fourteen minutes by car from mine, twenty-one with a little traffic and a red light.  By the time a tear in the net showed and I had to bring the twins to an emergency appointment because my parents simply couldn’t get home in time to help, Tom was dependent upon me. 

This didn’t keep him from throwing a tantrum about my not telling him I was a single mother.  But I knew I was the best associate he’d had in seven years so I had the upper hand.  I straightened my posture and assumed my very sternest veterinarian look.  I tamped down the little vein of terror I felt pulsing directly under that expression.  How dare he be angry with me?  “Have I ever missed an appointment or shirked being on-call?”  I demanded.  

“You know it makes a difference,” he argued.  “Look at you now—two babies in tow.  How can you concentrate on the patient if they start crying?”

“Linda’s here.”

“Linda’s not always here.  And even if she is, even if there are kennel-kids and Linda, I don’t pay them to watch your children!”

It had gone on from there, and a half hour later I had quit, or been fired, depending upon how you looked at it.  Tom had gone home and told his wife about the altercation.  She ordered him to rehire me.  Besides the fact that she hated it when her husband was between associates and handling everything by himself, she had three children and a different perspective on how Tom managed to be so free to make judgments about mothers: he wasn’t one.   “You go back there and you make room for that girl,” she’d demanded.  I got the story a full year later when we were having a beer after work in the storage room, going over dog food invoices.  “She said you were the best associate I’d ever had and if you’d managed to get this deep in without my knowing about the kids, that meant you had backup.  Not as much backup as she reminded me that I had, maybe, but more than most.”  Five years later he had offered me part of the business, and I’d taken out a loan and bought it.  

So that’s what I assumed I was:  arigid, secretly somewhat frightened and sometimes superficially breezy, very competent, basically grateful, casually Jewish woman in her mid-thirties, raising her twins with the help of her besotted parents and earning her living by saving small animals from any number of threatening diseases and bad habits.  

Then Isaac Cooper called.