Photo credit: MarkGurevich CMYK
Shortly after my mother died, the kids and I established the routine of taking long beach walks about an hour before sundown. We lived on Staten Island then, the long beautiful stretch of Great Kills beach was only seven minutes away by car. My husband and I had separated just a few months before my mother’s death, and all three of us were still reeling from these two blows. David was almost 18 then, Stephanie had just turned 15; I would look at our shadows and see that they were about the same lengths. We looked like three orphaned siblings rather than a mother and her kids.
Every time we would end up talking about my mother — we couldn’t resist talking about her all the time, sharing memories and anecdotes of her — not recent memories, but the ones from the time when she was still strong, feisty, beautiful, mean, because that was how we wanted to remember her. Naturally, I had more to share, because my memories span almost 40 years.
My favorite memories of her were about our visits to the theater, which started shortly after I turned six.
My father died when I was very young. My mother was only 36, but she never remarried, and as far as I know, never had a relationship with another man. Now, as an adult, I find it unbearably sad, but as a child I thought, why would she even need a man when she had me? We were each other's confidantes, best friends, and favorite companions. She would take me everywhere with her, to all kinds of grown-up places, work parties, business trips, adult concerts and plays. My mother could’ve taken anybody with her: my grandmother, my two uncles, her friends or colleagues, but she always picked me! I assumed this was because I was unusually smart and mature for my age.
Later I came up with another, less flattering reason for why my mother always took me with her. All of these other people had their own lives, their own partners, their own interests, and I was the only one truly eager to accompany my mother everywhere, listen to her, get excited by whatever excited her or at least to pretend that I was.
I was the “cool parent,” which meant that I probably wasn’t parent enough.
Our favorite outings were to see a ballet at the Kremlin Palace of Congresses. The morgue-like palace was specially built for the Communist Party conventions, but since they only happened once every four years, the rest of the time the space was used for various performances, usually ballets, usually by Tchaikovsky. I loved walking toward Kremlin down the chilly and brightly lit street, and then across the square paved with special stones that had ears. “Mom, why does Uncle Edik always say that our country is sick? How can a country be sick?” “Shh! These stones can hear!”
Entering the palace felt amazing! Taking off my coat and my felt boots in the cloak room, pulling out my good shoes from my mother’s bag, putting them on, doing the buckles, fixing my dress. Theater was the only occasion where I got to wear my “good” dress. Purple velvet frock with lace collar. It used to go to my ankles, but every year the hem would rise higher and higher, until it accidentally became fashionably short. Unfortunately, it was threadbare by then. But still, what a thrill it was to catch a glimpse of myself in the enormous mirror, in the crowd of smartly dressed, loud, excited people. I was the smallest, the youngest, the brightest. I was in the theater while all the other kids were home watching Good Night, Kiddies!
Everybody was looking at me, everybody was impressed.
Next, we would go to the enormous, gleaming buffet with all those exotic dishes normally reserved for big party bosses, like smoked fish sandwiches, and mushrooms in cream sauce baked in individual metal cups, and whipped cream. By the time the performance was about to start, I would gorge myself silly. I can safely say that the performance itself was the lowest point of our outings. All those ballets were dreadfully boring, but that wasn’t the worst thing about them; the worst thing was that they were physically sickening.
It usually wasn’t until the middle of the first act when I’d feel the first waves of nausea, which would grow stronger and stronger every time the music swelled. Those mushrooms and smoked fish refused to play nicely with the whipped cream in my stomach. I would try to hold it in for as long as I could, but by the end of the first act I felt that something heavy and unstoppable was rising up my esophagus and about to erupt. My mother and I had to squeeze past all those indignant music and dance lovers and run for the bathroom.
“The performance of Swan Lake
was the worst,” I told the kids on one of our beach walks, “because that time I didn’t make it out of my seat. I threw up right there in the little space between our row and the seats in front of us. There was about two rubles worth of half-digested whipped cream and cream sauce all over the beautiful red velvet carpet and my good dress.”
“Eww!” Stephanie muttered. And David just laughed.
“What I don’t understand,” I said, “is why your grandma wouldn’t stop me from eating all that shit.”
Both kids looked at me incredulously.
never stopped us
,” David said.
“Yes, you never
did,” Stephanie confirmed.
I had no idea what they were talking about.
“Remember, how you used to take us to BAM to see all those foreign plays?” David said. “Stephanie was only seven or eight, and I was what, ten? We would always stop by that tiny Italian place. We would all get penne alla vodka
and Steph would throw up when we got home. Every single time. And yet you never objected when she ordered it.”
This was true. I didn’t object. My marriage had been hopelessly unhappy for a long, long time, and I was so eager to get out of the house, to spend time with the kids on my own, to take them places that I enjoyed, to share my excitement over the things that I loved with the two people that were the closest to me in the whole world. I would honestly forget about the consequences. Or rather, I wouldn’t let myself think about them, because I didn’t want to spoil the fun.
“OK, what I did was selfish and wrong, but why did you order that pasta again and again?” I asked Stephanie.
“Because the pasta was good!” she said. “And I was excited. I loved going to the theater. The plays were awful — all those sad people speaking foreign languages — but I really liked going there, taking the express bus from Staten Island, going over Verrazzano Bridge, looking at the ocean from there, then diving into the Battery tunnel and emerging from there into a completely different place, with crowded streets and huge buildings and cars... and I loved being the youngest one in the theater.”
This was true. David hated the attention, but Stephanie loved it. People would smile at her and ask: “Theater lover, aren’t you?” And she would beam. And I would beam too, never questioning the wisdom of taking a seven-year-old to see Beckett or Wedekind.
I can’t believe it now, but before that beach walk I honestly didn’t realize that I was acting towards my kids in exactly same way my mother acted towards me.
I would cast my kids in the roles they weren’t supposed to have (favorite companion, friend, confidant), because my marriage was lacking, because I was unhappy and lonely. I would make them feel special by doing, but I would burden them with my needs. And I would do all that, while making fun of my own childhood and my weird mother. I was the “cool parent,” which meant that I probably wasn’t parent enough.
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came to the U.S. from Russia in 1994. She is a recipient of the Guggenheim fellowship, and Goldberg Prize for Jewish fiction. She is the author of There Are Jews in My House
, Memoirs of a Muse
, Broccoli and Other Tales of Food and Love
, The Scent of Pine
, and Still Here
. Her stories and essays have appeared in The New Yorker
, The New York Times
, and Vogue
. Divide Me by Zero
is her latest book.