At First I Was a Jew
Mothers and daughters lie to one another even though we know it’ll lead nowhere good. You start trying not to see certain things in each other, and as time goes by, you don’t. Not until you have to.
The relationship 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. Mother and child are perfectly beautiful to one another. The relationship is chemical, mesmerizing, electrical. If it were otherwise, of course, you’d be seeing a lot of babies being pitched off roofs by exhausted and tormented caretakers.
But then things change. The terrible intimacy takes on a kind of bullying, boundaried taste as well as its sweet one, and the daughter begins to hide her life. The mother tells more and more partial truths. They remember when they regarded each other as the ideal of their kind, but they realize one day that it’s changed. They hide anything that will bring that paradise they used to know to an end, and they try not to know that the hiding itself means that it’s already gone.
That’s a rough description of where I found myself by second grade: I sometimes felt overcome by an irrational compulsion to lie to my mother. I’m not talking big-screen melodramatic kinds of lying—it wasn’t like by night I was secretly a political informer while by day I pretended to be a simple eight year old. I only mean that I’d be sad and take pains to make my mom think I was happy; that I’d be thinking about meatloaf and if she asked me what I was thinking, I’d say “Dying.”
I don’t do this to my dad. I often think of my dad as a large and intelligent dog. Don’t mistake this as condescension. I’m a practicing veterinarian, 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 know that my mother loves me in an unreasoning way, which most of the time has been just fine with me. But sometimes it has felt like a serious responsibility, having her happiness in my hands. A person can get irresponsible with that kind of influence. A kid with Daughter Radar can feel her effect on her mother but not control it, and something about power over your own mother is unwelcome as well as thrilling. Mom would come home with some unhappiness 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. A troubling feeling. The flip side of this was the heady experience of making my mom happy just by beaming happiness at her. She asks how my day was and I’d say great, because it made her smile. Maybe I was feeling generous because I got a 97 on my science quiz that day.
Things snowball and twist, so when I was fifteen and angry with her because I was fifteen and she asked about my day (a particularly lovely day) I’d say, “Disgusting. Don’t even start.” And this made her sad, as I knew it would (though I denied, even to myself, that I knew it).
So 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.
She wanted me to have a romantic history, so when I went to college and 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 modified all Benny stories to meet her cheeriest hopes.
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 still tangled where she should have stopped and I began. I couldn’t let her wedge her self between me and this man.
Of course I want perfect mutual transparency with my mother–perfect love. But how can there be that kind of feeling between two people who have hidden themselves so much that they don’t, entirely, know one another any more? Probably they never did know one another–they were enmeshed in an ancient relationship whose shape and power were beyond their control. But I know this for a fact–we want to be loved by the other exactly as we are. I also know that I love my mother and if I believed that the real me might make her miserable, I’d try to invent something more palatable. Unless I was angry with her, of course, in which case I’d invent something less palatable. It’s the time-honored method of dealing with the people you love most when they might be disappointed or critical of who you really are: you hide. You disappear. You are unaware when you start this kind of behavior of how dangerous it can be in the long run.
Who I Really Am
I’m adopted, though I look remarkably like my parents, Sam and Brynna—black eyes, straight hair, high cheekbones. Mom has a Turkish background—thus my own name: Saime. Dad is Ashkenazi. They’re both Jewish. The fact of my adoption was always right there in the open. 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 possession in toddlerhood, and then into childhood, 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: SAIME, 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 childhood 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 to be released. I didn’t even have to fake it at the beginning. The walls would start closing in on me and the people would be pressing on all sides. The boredom of endless holiday shul hours alone brought me to the brink of unconsciousness. My parents didn’t press the issue because they weren’t terribly religious. Chags like the New Year or Passover were observed more in honor of their childhood memories than religious sensibilities. 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. I tried every ruse to avoid this ritualized cleansing. The only excuse that worked was school-work, which for my mom and dad had a kind of sacred authority all its own. My future, I was regularly told, 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. Just be happy.
Like most children, I managed to approach but not scale their hopes for me. As I’ve told you, I ended up a veterinarian, and I’m not always happy though I am usually absorbed, and that is probably a more sustainable state. My mom once told me that happiness is an overrated goal, and from what little I’ve seen of life, I think she’s right.
Mom and Dad should have seen my future in my childhood habit of chasing anything with fur and paws and trying to pat it. I was the kind of little girl who brightened if you offered to introduce her to the family hamster. If my mom hadn’t hated horses I would probably have been one of those stable rat girls. At seven I discovered a broken-down gelding living in a small paddock about a mile from my suburban house and I visited him regularly even though he whacked you off the fence with his enormous head if you annoyed him while you were struggling to reach his whiskers. At ten I asked for riding lessons for a birthday present and a handful were grudgingly arranged. My mother was afraid of horses and what they could do to children.
As for dogs, I didn’t believe my parents when they told me some were hostile. I thought that bristling mongrels with bared teeth were merely unhappy, and I stubbornly tried to cheer them up. As a result I was occasionally bitten, which practically drove my mother insane one unlucky summer when I stumbled on at least four really unhappy dogs in the space of as many days. This didn’t keep me from trying to rub all their bellies. So I lied to her, telling her I was playing with human neighbors when in fact I set out each day looking for new dogs or trying to lure rabbits into cages I’d cobbled together in the cellar. I tried to tell her what she needed to hear. Then there was the fact that I was a stubborn child who wanted her own way.
When I told my parents about applying to vet school, my gentle father stepped forward and took my part. What point is there in earning more money as a radiologist if you’re a miserable person? he’d said to Mom. Let the girl go.
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. 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. She knew that her husband only intervened if it mattered, and that he was usually right on the few instances when he contradicted her. I could see in her face that she trusted him. Loved him. 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.
The poet I fell in love with during my last year of school was harder for her to accept. 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 disorganized-looking people clustered around my future husband. They dribbled little pieces of paper and cigarette ash and none of their clothes seemed to have been originally purchased for their own use. 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. I hadn’t known it was even there before, sitting inside me and 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. There is only one Falling in Love for the First Time, and he was mine.
Just before we married I took the poet 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 was unlike me, she added, shaking her head to punctuate her surprise. I thought, How can you know for sure? I’ve been misleading you off and on for years; you’ve been editing out the parts of me you didn’t want to see.
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 said it, though, and I would not be managed and trampled by her efforts to protect me from what I wanted. What I was. 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.
I was happy and if she loved me, that should be enough for her. That was my silly thinking on the subject. I wanted to be beheld, and I wanted her to see me exactly as I wanted to see myself. Such is love’s mix of narcissism and generosity. 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 I went along with it and let a part of me, in her presence, disappear. It’s a little painful but not hard at all. Like falling off a log.
We sat down to talk about planning the wedding but the way her face looked, the way she dragged the pen across the paper as we made lists, just enraged me. She wouldn’t come out and fight me but she wouldn’t take the effort to pretend to be pleased for me either. In the end I asked him to elope, which hurt her terribly—probably a consideration in my decision to marry in a city hall anteroom. I was 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.
He was a beautiful and intelligent creature and if I’d never had children I think my life would have been entirely shaped by my feelings for him. But then Aydin and Sibel were born. I fell in love again, this time with them, but the poet didn’t. He had no more curiosity about his own offspring than a male dragonfly or hamster might have and 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 what 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 skin 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 five 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 from same. 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. One of the happiest times of my life was when Aydin passed his strep infection on 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 until dawn made them slowly, slowly disappear. A clear diagnosis and appropriate meds swept aside any anxiety about their ultimate recovery, and I settled into the simple world where everything but them and their needs came second. Those nights the hwreeckhwreckhreeck of the chair accompanied what became an ineffable, glittering sense of being in exactly the right place at the right time, unconnected in any meaningful way with anything outside that room. To be absorbed into their needs, their little feverish bodies, was to be free of myself.
When the twins were three months old, just the size of decent roaster chickens, a tiny academic outpost in Nebraska offered the Poet 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 Nebraska, and it might lead to another job. Still he refused.
It wasn’t money that defeated us in the end. Our different experiences of parenthood did that. He saw Aydin and Sibel as curiosities—possibly interesting but unconnected, really, to him. Everything about them left him unmoved. He slept through their crying, was busy when the first high fever sent Aydin to the doctor, took no pleasure in their solid blinking physical selves. “They’ll get interesting when they talk,” he said to me one day. “I mean, talk and say something you can actually respond to.” I watched him looking down at a gurgling Sibel and I saw that he was not the slightest bit in her power.
I looked into my future with this man and got so discouraged that I spent three weeks on my back in bed, rising only to respond to the twins’ most pressing needs. It took that long to face the fact that the children might always be alien intruders to him, while I myself had difficulty distinguishing them from myself. Worse, I could see that my being a mother repelled him just a little bit. He’d experienced the pregnancy as something that distracted me from him and was physically a bit alarming. I sympathized because his view of pregnancy paralleled my own. After their births I could see his impatience with me, see his hopes that soon I would turn away from this preoccupation with keeping the infant children alive and go back to being his lover. I didn’t see his feelings as a phase that would end with their babyhoods. It looked to me like who he was.
I got a firm grip on the part of me that was occupied by him and I pushed it over a kind of cliff in my mind. Suddenly the way he chewed annoyed me. Then I couldn’t stand the way he walked on the balls of his feet so often, and from there it was a tumbling rush directly to hating everything he did. I knew it wasn’t fair or right or logical but I’d reached this terrible certainty: he didn’t love the children. He didn’t know who I was any more. Increasingly he spoke about me as the refuge he retreated to when he came home from his real life at the end of every day. I could see that our children made his imaginary sanctuary less quiet for him, and he minded it but bore it patiently.
I fell out of love. I filed for divorce.
So there it was–ecstasy, followed by misery and lawyers, just like my mother had known it would be. I was so angry with her.
We went through the meetings and the paper work, went through the empty motions of apportioning child support and visitation rights which, as it turned out, he would never honor or use. Letters and telephone calls came at birthdays for the first year and then he vanished. The letters had been beautifully written but their self-conscious craft made me sad. All his care had been directed at the language itself and not at the people reading the letters. It occurred to me, looking at them when I was alone in the kitchen under the 100-watt bulb that burnt out every three weeks like clockwork, that there were no questions in these letters—only amusing and idiosyncratic observations about his own life. How had I not seen this about him? For a little while I kept reading the kinds of magazines where his name might appear, and then I stopped.
The twins weren’t even three yet. Initially I’d made a point of refusing any help from Mom and Dad because I knew what they thought of the marriage, and it was so exhausting to know that my mother had been right—again. There was no comfort in knowing that I’d truly loved the poet. In the end it just felt like I hadn’t understood things at all.
Within months of the divorce 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 Sibel’s third earache in as many months and my expression was bloodshot, blotchy, 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. I’d lit something.
Within two months Mom and Dad had moved me and the babies closer to them, and were so snarled up in the twins’ schedules that they would not entertain the idea of nannies or daycare. It happened quickly, all in the midst of my most sleep-deprived and battered condition. I felt 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 nap-time battles and adventures with squirrels in the park multiplied.
My folks were in love with the whole mess. And though there were moments when I’d thought about dislodging them from my daily life, in general the tangle of schedules and personalities felt right. There’d been times, especially early on, when it felt like a chaotic hustling toddler-pass-off. But the years went on and our three-parent, two-child household continued. Maybe Mom was a bit rigid and Dad wasn’t so good at remembering the Fluff or the Brownie meeting, but they aced the emergencies and messes. If Aydin or Sibel 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 all quiet focus.
So that’s what I was: a divorced, 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.
This is the story of what happened when I found out that I was not what my mom and dad told me I was—a Jewish girl from the Bronx who had been adopted by a Jewish couple on Long Island. The truth, as it turned out, was that I was an Oglala Sioux, born in a plywood-sided hospital in Pine Ridge, South Dakota, a member of the tribe most identified with the nearly lunar expanses of the American Prairies and the way they make people feel. I was an Indian, and my mother was a liar. So was my father, but that didn’t register in quite the same way.
This is also the story of approaching and avoiding the objects in the world that nail you to a family, a history, a cluster of stories and expectations. In my case, the object was a sheepskin shirt festooned with human scalps and pretty glass beads that had traveled from Venice to the Dakotas in the middle of the last century. Across its front was a painting of a lost child set down in dyes made from riverbed minerals and blood. The Oglala call these wicasa shirts, and they are sacred to the men who wore them in battle or were given them to wear as a sign of their wisdom and authority. This shirt was mine, passed on by my biological mother on the day of my birth and hidden in Sam and Brynna’s bedroom closet for more than thirty years, where they had put it so they could forget that it existed. They had almost succeeded entirely.