Right/Left: A Triptych
Raritan, Summer 2015
Best American Essays 2016
My friend Boa slithered up the stairs beside me to my room, keeping a lower profile than such well-known confidants as, say, Christopher Robin’s bear. Boa was a bootlace strung with red, yellow, blue, and green wooden beads, and as I led him by the knotted nose, I told him how things were in the world. He was always pleased to give my findings independent confirmation.
A) Mothers don’t eat. It had come to my attention that mothers were fueled by something other than food: possibly telephone talk and worry. I wondered how old you had to be to turn into a mother and not have to eat anymore.
At breakfast my mother would hover ominously as I moped over my oatmeal. At lunch she would often be cleaning, exuding busyness and wearing a kerchief that swept her hair up from the nape and tied in a knot above her forehead—like Alice’s headgear in The Honeymooners, only the Russian-immigrant version, a flower print with strong, blotchy pinks. At dinner, as Lowell Thomas brought the news from North, from South, from East, from West, my mother brought the lamb chops, mashed potatoes, and thoroughly boiled vegetables from the stove to the table. Rarely did she sit down with us and eat them. If she sat, she would jump up to get an extra knife, then to answer the phone, then to put the pots in the sink and fill them with water so they wouldn’t dry out and exhaust both her and the metal-scented Brillo pad that already oozed rust.
As I ate I distributed dinner to the four corners of my personal geography, imagining an ingested olive-drab green bean traveling through my middle to my left big toe, a forkful of mashed potatoes dispatched to the right elbow, and so on. I tried to make sure that all parts of me received sufficient supplies.
Despite my best efforts to keep all my regions intact under a centralized administration, I learned that
B) Halvsies is all. This finding was made not at the kitchen table but in the car on the way to my grandmother’s in the Bronx. It was a Sunday; my father was driving the two-tone ’51 Buick, my mother sat next to him, and I was in the back seat. Maybe the Yiddish hour was on WEVD, and maybe my mother was singing along, off-key, to “Rozhinkes mit mandlen” (“Raisins and Almonds,” which she may or may not have eaten). “So if you’re our little girl,” my father said, the glance over his shoulder falling short of my eyes, “which half is your mother’s and which half is your father’s?” They seemed to be waiting for an answer. After due deliberation, I awarded my right side, which I favored, to my mother, whom I loved more that year, the antagonism over oatmeal notwithstanding. Years later I was still assuaging my guilt with the thought that the left side contained my heart, location of loving and thudding, so my father didn’t get such a bad deal.
It has been suggested to me that this early split was the forerunner of other geographical divisions in my life, such as the attempt to inhabit both Israel and the US, journalism and poetry, one man and another. My behavior in a swimming pool is symptomatic. Some people, when lowering themselves into an occupied lane, say, “Do you mind if we share this?” I say, “Do you mind if we split this?” The distinction is obvious only in the American half of my life. In an Israeli swimming lane the word for share is the reflexive form of split, so I say, if I bother to ask, what amounts to, “Can we split ourselves on this?” Which goes a long way toward explaining Middle East politics.
The principle of halvsies also came into play with the youngest of my three older brothers, the only one close enough in age to share a split with. When our neighbors gave us a chocolate bunny and egg at Easter, the gifts were usually stored on a shelf in the basement, where their existence could be denied until the end of Passover. Finally they were brought upstairs to be divided, and then of course the question was who would get the bigger half. Fairly early I learned the moral advantage of saying I preferred the smaller. It felt less like losing. And it was practice for turning into a mother. At Easter I learned another fact, related to the principle that contiguity implies causality: I learned that
C) Rabbits lay eggs. They were everywhere together: plush bunnies and dyed eggs nestled in shredded green cellophane approximating spring. Clearly it was a matter of kinship.
There was an alternative, vegetable theory for the origin of eggs, however: the first book I ever took out of the school library, when I was seven, was called The Egg Tree, and it was full of pictures of pastel-painted Easter eggs blooming on bare branches. My mother lifted her head from the gossip columns of The Daily News to take a look. “Jewish girls don’t read books like that,” she said. Although I didn’t return this book to the library immediately, I no longer had the heart to pursue my research into rabbit-and-egg relations. My heart, in any case, was in occupied territory.
My father the occupier had yet another theory about eggs, which I discovered inadvertently on the rare occasions when I’d come home from school and find him there. He’d be in the hall near the back door, under a light that I noticed only years later was a bare bulb, checking messages tucked behind the warping plastic switch plate. The ritual went like this:
“In my back pocket.”
I’d duly glance into the one where his wallet wasn’t. “Not there,” I’d say. “What’s new?”
“Ah katz iz geloifen oifn dach und geleikt ahn ei.” Yiddish for “A cat ran up on the roof and laid an egg.”
I thought maybe he was right about a cat being on the roof, but he couldn’t be right about a cat laying an egg. Even Hallmark greeting cards reinforced the theory that eggs came from bunnies. Then again, I did know that startling things occur up there on the shingle slopes. For instance,
D) People roll snowballs off the roof in the middle of the night. I had very firm proof of this, having woken up in the dark one winter to the sound of small creaks and large plunks from above. By this time I was about ten, and more scientifically inclined. My confidant Boa, under the bed among the dust bunnies and the mite eggs, heard these sounds with his very own ears. If someone was rolling things off the roof, I thought, I would see the evidence on the ground. I looked out the window. Sure enough, indentations in the snow below the edge of the eaves. I ran and woke my mother.
“Someone’s rolling snowballs off the roof.”
“Don’t be silly.”
I coaxed her out of bed and into my room to see the evidence from my window.
“Icicles dropping off,” she said. “Go back to sleep.”
“You’re not trying hard enough.”
I swore I’d never say that to my kids. Better yet, I’d never turn into a mother at all.
Fortunately, I found more tolerance for truth in other quarters. One night a few weeks later, when, being the youngest, I’d had to go to bed while family and guests reveled downstairs, there was a knock at my door. My cousin Miriam came in and sat on the bed.
“How ya doin’, kid?” she inquired, with a little box to the elbow she didn’t realize was the locus of potatoes mashed with chicken fat.
I was pleased to have her company and even more pleased by the revelation she was about to share, not split, with me and nobody else: she had been born an Eskimo, named Minigoochi, kidnapped as a child, forcibly imported to the gray geometry of Astoria, Queens. She gave me extensive details about life in the igloo and herring for breakfast; none of that oatmeal. I sensed a fellow displaced person, another being half elsewhere. Maybe the snowball rollers had been her long-lost relatives, arrived on the wrong day, signaling high and low.
Years later, clearing out my parents’ home after my mother died, I found in the heavily varnished credenza (my mother, when enunciating, said credenzer) a small clear-plastic box containing wooden beads colored red, yellow, blue, and green: Boa, deconstructed. I threw him out, or maybe threw him in as a bonus to the tag-sale customer who bought the busy flowered kerchief, or the radio containing Lowell Thomas, or the mattress of my insomnia on a snowy night.
Recently I had lunch with my cousin Miriam and thanked her for confiding in me about her Minigoochi life. She had no recollection of either the life or the story, but, patting my potato elbow, accepted my gratitude with grace. It surprised me at this late date that even she had deserted the cause of truth. But then, only half of what I’ve written here is true. I won’t say which half, and I won’t say which half I love more.
I learned to tell my right hand from my left by standing in the kitchen, facing the sink, and thinking about the dishes in the closets. At the time I was still too short to peer over the porcelain rim and learn that in the northern hemisphere water swirls down the drain counter-clockwise.
Right, I knew, was the closet where the dairy (milchig) dishes were stored. They were accompanied by the usual array of implements, such as an eggbeater and a potato masher. We called this the milchika side, adding that final “a” for lubrication between consonants, like a pat of butter stirred into noodles to keep them unstuck. Left was the closet where the meat (fleishig) dishes, with their respective eggbeater and potato masher, bided their time. We called it the fleishika side, the “a” in this case analogous to a dollop of chicken fat averting the clumping of peas. “Right” was associated with milk, crumbly white farmer cheese, and sour cream. “Left” was chicken soup, chopped liver, and hamburgers of a doneness in which what juice remained was as dark as the crust.
There was a color code in the kitchen that prevented the mixing of milk and meat. The milchika dish drainer was red; the dish sponge was pink. The milchika towels had red stripes down the sides, so that red, and by extension, warm colors, meant dairy; you would not use these towels, during some stove emergency, to lift the lid off overly exuberant chicken soup. To do that you would use the towels with blue stripes down the sides. And by the way, how many times do I have to tell you that’s what potholders are for?
As long as I stayed at home, right and left were relatively uncomplicated. Asked to hold up my right hand, I merely did the preschool version of a thought experiment: planting myself so that the seam of the worn linoleum ran under the arches of my saddle shoes, I conjured up the porcelain of the sink, the glossy white-painted wooden cabinets with chromium pulls beneath it, the glossy white-painted closet doors at each side, and voilà, in less than ten minutes the correct hand would shoot up. If butterscotch pudding (milchig, in a dish from the right side) was being proffered as a prize for the right answer, the thought experiment could be accomplished in less than ten seconds.
It was at school, when contemplating a first-grade workbook, that I got my directional signals crossed. As I recall, there were two kinds of black-and-white line drawings, accompanied by two kinds of insidious fill-in-the-blanks. The first was something like: Look, look, Spot! Dick has a balloon in his ________ (right, left) hand.
This question, I began to understand, required a somewhat more sophisticated thought experiment than those of my early career. I had to put myself in Dick’s place; i.e. pretend I was in the kitchen, but facing the stove, which was opposite the sink. Or maybe pretend I was the sink, with a right-hand closet and a left-hand closet, facing me. Or was I still me, stepping inside the page and turning around, carrying the kitchen closets with me, the cups swinging riskily on their hooks, the cow-shaped creamer lowing morosely at the disturbance, the carefully hoarded, yellowing, reusable plastic containers rolling with every degree of my rotation? Eventually, I figured out that Dick’s left hand was opposite my right hand. This was what it meant to recognize another being; I was mastering the difficult arts of empathy and differentiation.
Then came the second challenge: Look, look! Dick is on the ________ (right, left). Jane is on the ________ (left, right). Spot is in the middle. There was Dick again, that person-in-reverse. But what degree of empathy was required this time? Whose right? Whose left? Were we still talking about Dick’s hands, or were we back to right and left vis-à-vis me?
I lurched through first grade somehow, looking both ways and up and down before crossing streets, as the principal, at assemblies, advised. I was pretty good at up-and-down. But this question of whose right, whose right of way, whose way, has continued to plague me. It was only intensified by my twenty years in Israel, where reading, not to say living, is done from right to left instead of from left to right, though numeration, usually but not always, is left to right.
On a visit to the US sometime during those twenty years I drove my aging parents to a fish restaurant, got out and checked the hours on the door before easing them out of the car and propping them up on their varifooted walking equipment. We ambled haltingly over to the restaurant, which, at 3 p.m., as it turned out, was not yet open. The hours I’d read as 8–4 were in fact 4–8. Some might attribute this confusion to my personal right/left handicap. Others, I hope, will blame the rabbis for determining that fish is pareve, considered neither dairy nor meat, and can be associated with either the right-hand, red-towel closet or the left-hand, blue-towel closet, depending on which pots it is cooked in and what accompanies it on the plate. Only recently have I been puzzled by this neutral classification of the finned breed. Hath not a fish eyes? If you prick it, doth it not bleed? Then how could it be served with a dairy meal?
My parents were annoyed and disappointed by our ill-timed foray; so much for my good intentions. But maybe I hadn’t really wanted to take them to this restaurant. Maybe I was just getting back at them for having had such unwieldy, old-fashioned, overloaded kitchen closets that made my thinking lumber so.
For an understanding of family vengeance—as well as empathy and fish—we of course look to Shakespeare: of what use a pound of flesh? “To bait fish withal.” The Bard, incidentally, was kind enough to minimize his stage directions, so that we are spared the question of whether right and left pertain to the actors or the audience. If Christian Portia were to enter stage right and Jewish Jessica stage left, I, for one, wouldn’t know where to put myself.
What directional guidance we do get in the Merchant of Venice hardly tells us which end is up. The clown Launcelot Gobbo, Shylock’s servant, walks down the street and meets his father, who is looking for him and, being blind, doesn’t know he’s found him. Young Gobbo, apparently settling some dish-closet accounts of his own, teases his father with these directions to Shylock’s:
Turn up on your right hand at the next turning, but at the next turning of all, on your left; marry, at the very next turning turn of no hand, but turn down indirectly to the Jew’s house.
I happened to be puzzling over this scene while standing in line at a US post office one day, holding some letters addressed in Hebrew and some addressed in English. I concluded my business, and, with empathy in my heart and stamps in my purse, walked toward the exit, where I reached for the wooden handle on the glass door. No thought experiments: I just took in the PULL sign and pulled. The door went nowhere. Suddenly I noticed Dick, Jane, and Spot all smirking at me from the sidewalk. Now in digital color, Dick sported fleishika designer jeans with a milchika striped polo. “Oh,” he said, “the places you’ll go.”
“Exeunt omnes,” I replied.
During my time in Israel there was a family emergency on Long Island. I got on a plane in Tel Aviv, flew for eleven hours, landed in New York, took a taxi to my parents’ house, picked up the car keys, went out, slamming the door, realized I had locked myself out, remembered which basement window might be unlatched, backed myself into it, landing feet-first in a sink, got the keys, dashed out the door, drove to the hospital, parked in a garage, entered the lobby, and stood by a potted ficus deciding whether to go first to my mother with heart failure on the seventh floor or my father half-paralyzed by a stroke on the fourth. A dry leaf from the detritus around the basement window apparently still clung to the elbow of my sweater; a man passing plucked it off, smiling, and handed it to me.
My mother, in a frail voice from her bed—I have the impression of pink, but nothing was pink there, only blanched skin and bleached sheets—my mother, whose warnings and interpretations I usually rejected, said, “Go see him but try not to be shocked.” I walked slowly down the corridor, over beige linoleum squares, practicing unsurprise.
Where, in the middle of my father, was the dividing line, the hyphen in half-dead? I imagined a column of hyphens, like vertebrae, held in proximity by cartilage and air and the good will of some unintentioned Being. Or the same hyphens, each rotated ninety degrees, the way you pivot a gurney to get it through the door, hyphens turned vertical, forming a semi-permeable perforated line, allowing a little life to ooze through, osmotic, from left to right, and a little death from right to left. If you listened closely you could hear the backwash, like blood murmuring around a weakened heart valve.
All this so as not to look at his face, which asked me how much I was willing to know of who he now was. And what did I know before?
The German artist Hannah Hoch made mischling photomontages in her “Ethnographic Series,” showing alien eyes, unpaired, in an unsuspecting face; exposing rough seams between cultures, raveled and frayed. One montage, Abducted, is an image of an African sculpture: four people riding the long back of a beast, all facing left. Two isosceles-breasted women are sandwiched between two bare men. But Hoch replaced the head of the first woman with a Western profile facing right: pale skin, bobbed hair, lipstick on an appalled mouth open in protest against this inexorable motion. The hostage has as much chance of reversing her fate as someone sliding backward through a small, low window, trying to get unborn.
Anthropologist Mary Douglas wrote about discreteness of categories as the essence of purity in many faiths and cultures. According to this theory, something is unkosher—unfit, unseemly—if it mixes attributes of two or more categories, as lobsters and shrimp do, for instance: mischlings living in the sea but having no fins or scales, not swimming but walking on the sea floor.
Every day for a couple of weeks I exercised my father’s dead half, moving the leg out slightly from under the sheet, bending, straightening, bending, straightening skin, bone, and string of muscle. Someone in charge had told me this would help circulation, maybe muscle tone; there was hope of restoring use. I explained to my father what I was doing, but I never knew what he absorbed. Words would come out of him from time to time, but I couldn’t tell if those were words he intended. Gradually it became clear that nothing in his leg would change, and one day I gave up. Later I pictured the scene as something from a grade-B cowboy movie: lying on a craggy ledge, I had slowly disengaged my fingers, numbed by his dangling weight, and let him slide over the edge. I wondered if he had felt himself slip. His left hand clutched my right arm against the bed rail.
In the next stage of betrayal I moved him on a gurney through the underground passage from the hospital to the geriatric institute, from the live side to the dead side. He and my mother had been volunteers in “geriatrics,” and he had often wheeled patients back and forth through that tunnel for x-rays and tests. I had witnessed his usefulness, his hand on the shoulder of a man in a wheelchair, his nearly nonchalant pressing of the elevator button, his unmindful placing of one foot in front of the other. Did he know now that he was going in the final direction to the last place?
One day I shaved him, carefully, crying, and went back to Israel. Years later I saw a 1934 marble sculpture of Giacometti’s: half head, half skull, with open mouth and closed jaw. I recognized the cheekbones.
I picture time flowing from left to right, like prevailing winds on a flat map. On my computer screen is a little arrow labeled undo, curving back toward the left. Redo curves toward the right. Through the open window above my desk I hear a baby crying. I click undo: silence. Unnerved, I click redo. The baby cries again. I can huff, I can puff, I can blow the winds back.
At the nurses’ station on my mother’s floor in an old-age home, four years after my father’s death, there were signs to help people get their bearings: The weather is (cloudy, rainy, sunny). Once a sign said Today is Tuesday on Wednesday. It would be right in another six days, but who had another six days?
On the day that turned out to be my mother’s last, bad weather took over her body. She tossed from one side of the bed to the other, her head missing the pillow and thumping against the bars. “Wow,” she said, and then: “What’s happening?” I was trying not to be shocked and so was she, but I could tell she wasn’t trying hard enough. Months later I found a photo of a gargoyle in the newspaper travel section, with the same startled eyes.
When one of my brothers and I were called back later that night, whoever she was had already been abducted. Her jaw was tied up with a towel, in the old-fashioned toothache style, apparently to stop her from asking “What’s happening?” wherever she was going, or from saying mean things. When I was a kid she used to say, “Do that again and I’ll knock your block off.” And one night just a few months earlier, when I was visiting her at home and had tucked her in and put the water glass in its place and the Tylenol in its place so she could find them in the night of her “legal” blindness, she turned toward me and said, “Who’s going to do this for you?”
I had cut out the picture of the gargoyle, thinking maybe I’d make a photomontage. I’m still wondering what could share that page.