Tuesday, December 26, 2006

Merry Kratzmas

My Uncle Ralphie, who was a pharmacist, worked in a drugstore in Pittsburgh where we all lived together, Pappy(Grandpa) and Mammy(Grandma), their nicknames taken from the L'il Abner comic strip, as they were so little, my Aunt Bessie, her husband Jack, Uncle Harry, my Aunt Rita, my mother and my father whom my mother had married mostly because his family was so elegant and well-to-do she thought she would live in Squirrel Hill, where the better class of Jews lived. But my father was so stingy he moved in with her family, and my mother almost died. There was only one bathroom, and because my father was as meticulous as he was tight-fisted, he was in it most of the time.
It was the tail-end of the Depression, so the feeling in that crowded, loving (except for my mother and father whose coupling was steeped in violence) was not so much that we were Jews as that we were Americans. A portrait of FDR cut from the cover of the glossy color magazine in the Pittsburgh Sun Telegraph was pressed against the front of the glass in the cupboard above Pappy's worn leather chair in the corner of the dining room, so Roosevelt overlooked everything that went on in the the heart of the apartment, as if he were the real head of the family, which in a way I suppose he was.
Christmas morning, I as the baby of the extended family, would awake filled wih happy anticipation, because Jewish though we were, we celebrated it, and I believed in Santa Claus. But I also believed in Uncle Ralphie, because he worked in a drug store and always brought home good things. So there were oranges which always seemed a delicacy in harsh Pennsylvania winter, even though Pappy had a fruit stand, and the very full color comics, which Ralphie would read to me aloud, some candy (given reluctantly, as I was already porking up, with Ralphie calling me 'Baby Elephant'-- once more ahead of her time, childhood obesity before it made the news) and some little gifts from him beautifully wrapped, with fancy paper from the drugstore. And he would say, with a big grin 'Merry Kratzmas!' satire in the salute, as if we had taken this Gentile holiday and made it our own. Which I suppose we really had, since there was simply joy in the day, with no religious connotation.
Our own Judaism was restricted to matzoh ball soup, gefilte fish made from scratch by Mammy on Friday nights, followed by something like pot roast that I understand now is considered ethnic, though I doubt Mammy and Pappy knew that word, bright as they were, and grateful to be in this country. Most of her family died in Therezienstadt, and Pappy never talked about his relatives, or in fact very much about anything except how foolish my mother, his favorite, had been to marry Lew W. Davis, whom he always called by his full name including initial, as if to underscore how deluded my mother had been, imagining him to be an aristocrat.
The family in full, as Tom Wolfe might have it, can be found in The Motherland, my novel about them, which can probably be had on alibris.com for about $1.19. My mother famously stopped speaking to me when it was published. In spite of her being depicted fictionally as clever and beautiful, she was outraged because her family had been depicted as poor, which of course they were, as that, apparently, seemed the greatest sin to someone who had later arrived. She said that my Grandma, too, would never speak to me again, as I had written of her wearing a worn mink coat at a funeral, except that Mammy, being the great heart she was, apologized to me for the novel's not being a greater success, blaming herself, as Grandmas will, for the family's not being more interesting(an incorrect assessment-- publication collided with the fall of Richard Nixon, and my publisher also had All the President's Men.) My mother solaced herself by writing a note to the gossip columinist Liz Smith who was our friend, saying that the book upset her so much she became bedridden for the weekend, and regretted not having committed infanticide. Liz published that letter in her own The Mother Book, but she now does not speak to me either. I do not miss her, though I still long for some exchanges with my mother, with whom happily I reconciled many hundreds of times before she left for that Great Plastic Surgeon in the Sky. I am in her apartment now, a little studio she left me in New York that she always raged that she wouldn't, but did, and at some point during the day when I remember how witty she was, how dazzling her smile, and her jewelry, much of which I have lost, how sharp her brain, a little gasp of loss escapes me and I say 'Mom!' hoping she can hear me and knows how much she is missed.
I do that or the like very often now, as some recollection of someone beloved no longer on the planet flashes across my brainpan like a shooting star, and I say 'Suzanne!' or ''Sandy!' or 'Susie' or 'Donny!' or even the names of some I did not like so well, but whose absence is palpable.
We must all love our friends very much, including the ones who hurt our feelings, because the silence goes deeper than the wound. I mean, most of the time.