A Storyby Millicent Dillon
There are three of us in here: my mother, my sister, and I.
By here I do not mean a space measured in yards or inches or feet but a region in time where events took place often, though not always, in rooms.
Mother died in 1983.
Rosalind died in 1996.
I have been granted survival to old age, for perhaps a day, a week, a year more, to tell of those events.
In truth I have told this tale before to myself and always ended in a rage.
Now it is time for a different kind of telling, one that is out loud and in front of others.
There is, of course, no written evidence of what happened. Still, I trust Memory not to stack the deck in favor of one or the other of the three of us, to stick to the facts.
Unfortunately, in this world of 2018 the very idea of fact has come into disrepute. Many lies are now being called facts. Like many others, I am in a rage at these “facts.” It is not the same rage as the one I have fallen into when I’ve told my tale to myself. That was an inside rage, a rage at the past, at events long bypassed by time. This outside rage, shared with many others, seethes with the power of the present. Will it affect my story?
The first event took place in the depth of the Depression when I was five or six years old.
Poverty stricken though we were, Mother arranged to take Rosalind and me to a dance class. I was excited at the thought of throwing myself heedlessly into space, of doing backbends and cartwheels, of showing off before others.
After the first few lessons, the teacher, who was as well the director of the school, announced that the students would be putting on a show for families and friends. He chose me to do one of the numbers, to sing and dance to a popular song of the time that began, “I ain’t nobody’s darling, I’m blue as can be, ’cause I ain’t got nobody to fuss over me.”
Elated by this newfound recognition, I practiced and practiced, at the same time teaching Rosalind the song and dance.
The next week at the dance class Mother went to the director and told him that Rosalind knew the number, as she had been practicing with me. He then decided that Rosalind should perform the piece instead of me.
Not a word was said to me, not by Mother nor by the director, about why this decision had been made, except that I was told that it had been made.
I did not complain, I did not scream, I did not cry.
Did I tell myself that she was younger and cuter than I, with her blond curls and her docile smile, while I was dark, intense, and not at all docile?
I doubt that I said that to myself then, trapped as I was in an inner and outer wordlessness.
I could not ask Mother, Why?
Instead I fell into accepting, as I had accepted it when my father in a drunken stupor at night cried out, “No! No! No!” As I accepted it when he lost his job as a salesman and the rent could not be paid and we packed up and moved to another place.
If I accepted these events, I believed, the family would survive and I would survive.
Yet so malleable was my belief that now and then another possibility surfaced: Did what happened to me and what happened to my family stem from a judgment by some god or other?
Since I didn’t know anything about God or the gods, only that we were Jews who were not religious, I dismissed that possibility. Only years later did I learn that Mother, who was very secretive about her earlier life, had grown up in an Orthodox Jewish family in Russia, and when she emigrated to America at twenty, she thought she had left those beliefs behind.
Is it possible that, as a child, always observing her closely, I picked up shreds of her discarded belief in a judging God and made them, even tentatively, my own?
It is possible.
It has been many years since I accepted acceptance as a way of being. In fact, at this very moment I am berating myself for bringing up an unimportant event that happened so long ago, a trivial event about a part in a children’s musical production. It has already lingered too long in memory, taking up space that should be devoted to more important things.
You’re right, I say to myself.
Yet I cannot help myself.
I have been compelled to tell it in this place where I am one of three and now must go on to the next small incident in expiation of some guilt, in pursuit of a small redemption.
I was twelve years old and in the last grade of junior high school, preparing after graduation to be a sophomore in high school.
Our teacher was Mr. Mandelstam, a man of middle age, fussy but kind. He advised us at the beginning of the year that our class would be responsible for putting out the yearly edition of the Laurel Leaf, a magazine containing poems, stories, and jokes.
I was appointed coeditor of the magazine. My coeditor was Jerome Rich, a tall, handsome boy of fifteen, whose self-confidence intimidated me. Though we were called editors, Mr. Mandelstam made all the editorial decisions.
Early on he announced that each student was to bring fifteen cents to class for an end-of-year project. Whoever couldn’t bring the money—it was still the Depression—would be excused. I don’t remember what that project was to be, but I do remember that when all the money was collected—it was three dollars and fifty-eight cents—Mr. Mandelstam gave it to me and told me to hold it until the end of the year. I had never had such a large sum of money in my possession and I was terrified lest I lose it, so I asked Mother if she would keep the money safe for me.
Toward the end of the year, though Mr. Mandelstam had not yet asked for the money, in preparation for his asking, I went to Mother and asked her for the money.
“I spent it,” she said and turned away.
I did not scream, I did not cry out, What am I supposed to do when he asks me for the money?
Instead, I kept waiting each day for Mr. Mandelstam to ask.
The end of term came and he never did ask.
I did not remind him.
Nor did I know what I would have done if the crime—for so I judged it—was discovered.
What would I have said?
There was still the question of why Mother had done what she had done. I knew of course that there was never enough money in the house.
Had she spent it on food?
Food that I ate?
Then wasn’t I complicit in the crime?
Did this sharing of guilt bring me closer to Mother in my mind? Were we now, as never before, secret sharers?
No, I did not think that thought then.
Nevertheless, I am convinced that afterthoughts have validity in any telling.
There is a small coda to the Laurel Leaf incident.