After I got married, I kept going to school part-time at the local community college because getting my degree was important to me. I decided to get a job then too. I worked in the medical records department at Staten Island Hospital from August until October 1970. I hated my job. I was a file clerk. The file shelves were 13 feet tall. The ladder I had to climb up on wobbled as struggled with stacks of files tucked under my arm. Between my tendency to transpose numbers and my fear of heights, it wasn’t a good match.
The job filled time until something better came along. After leaving Wagner College and getting married, my life became much quieter. I still went to the city a lot and immersed myself in the museums and Broadway shows. I’d meet Len for lunch, catch a matinee and then head home.
Gone were the days of campus life, political protests and all-night coffee houses. At nineteen I was a wife and a daughter-in-law. Most weekends we would go to Sam and Lil’s apartment in Queens for dinner or Sabbath. I was settling into my new family.
My in-laws were thrifty people from a strong Jewish middle-class background. Sam was originally a mailman who went to night school to get his BS and then law degree at night at Brooklyn College. It took him nearly twenty years to complete his schooling. What stamina! Lillian was a musician and pianist. She met Sam in her late twenties. She was eight years younger than him. They lived with their three children in a two-bedroom apartment. Their thriftiness was evident. They gave the kids the two bedrooms and chose to sleep in what should have been a small dinning room with vinyl accordion doors off the living room. Every day they had to make up the trundle bed that they slept on and make the room look unused. They never gave each other gifts, the towels in the bathroom were threadbare and tattered, and dinnertime was an event for survival of the fittest!
I experienced dinner with them as a free for all. Meals were served in the tiny kitchen with one side of the table smack against the wall and the chairs tightly squeezed together around the open sides. There was no room to spare. The food would be put on a platter on the table and everyone would swarm over it like hungry bees. Lil would say, “Okay, dig in,” which was the signal to attack the platter with forks. Elbows would wing out just missing eyes and hands might get forked if they got in the way. Then dinner would be wolfed down and the meal would be over. There was never any conversation to be had or eating slowly to enjoy the food. It was wham, bam, done!
This did explain some of Len’s odd eating habits. Often he came home from work, ate dinner fast, and often alone since he got home so late. Then he just continued to eat snacks for the rest of the night, non-stop grazing! He had a habit of eating everything in sight until it was gone. He got away with this because he had a fast metabolism and stayed thin. But food to him was like a drug.
Sam and Lil were married when she was thirty and he was thirty-eight. I was always curious about why Lillian and Sam married so late. Lillian would have been considered a spinster back in the 1940’s.
As it turned out there was a family secret. Sam was married before, in his late twenties, to a woman who was considered beautiful, but a “floozy.” This was a well-kept secret and only revealed a few years ago when my youngest son Adam got the skinny from Sam’s elderly niece.
Sam had to divorce his first wife when he found out that she was sleeping with other men! This was a humiliating experience for Sam, who had to get a Jewish divorce on top of the legal one. Jewish divorces are dramatic. Only men are allowed to ask for them. You must present your case in front of a tribunal of rabbis. A Jewish divorce is very public and great gossip for the community rumor mill!
This would have explained why I saw Sam rule Lillian with an iron hand. He was a nervous guy and not very affectionate. He and Lillian seemed to genuinely love each other, but she waited on him hand and foot and always deferred to him. Whatever he said was how things went down. Once, Len, his parents and I were talking about the movie Klute with Jane Fonda. It was an Oscar-wining film and Fonda played a prostitute. Len’s mother said something about how many times the main character got laid. It was really humorous to hear Lil speak this way, but Sam got furious. He reprimanded her like a child and acted as if he wanted to wash her mouth out with soap.
Sam and Lil had three children in quick succession. I think they just wanted to fit in with all the other couples their age as soon a possible because parenting was not natural to them. They acted awkward and formal around their kids and grandchildren. They rarely showed affection to family members except to Charlotte and Everett, Lil’s younger sister and husband.
In fact my therapist, Herb Jones, once asked me, “Are ya sure they’re Jewish?” He asked this when I told him the story of how Len’s parents never bragged about him or his successful career. They seemed to have a huge dislike for their oldest son, which was very unJewish-like. He could do no right in their eyes, even when he succeeded wildly in his career. I never understood this aspect of the family. It bothered me a lot that they could be so cold.
Len would never talk about it with me until I brought it up with Herb during a marriage counseling session. Herb wanted Len to confront his parents about this issue. Len’s parents agreed to have dinner with us and talk, but they brought along Charlotte and Everett for support. The four of them were thick as thieves. When Len broached the subject about why his parents often showed no support or interest in his successes, all four of them pounced on him like cats cornering a mouse, attacking him for being ungrateful. It was weird, sad and didn’t make any sense.
Later another story surfaced of how Len’s mother was so inept and fearful of being a new mother that she had a breakdown when they brought Len home. Her younger sister and husband took Len in for several months as a newborn until Lillian recovered. To me it seemed like Lillian was projecting her own guilt of about being an inadequate mother onto Len, and that Charlotte was still protecting her sister.
They were a complicated family. Len was turned into the family scapegoat in part because of his success. Go figure!
My parents treated Len like a hero for all his successes. If my parents were coming to New York City, they would often want to visit us, but only if Len was home. If he was traveling and it was just me at home with the kids, they stayed in the city and didn’t drop by. The ironies of life!
I wanted to move out of our tiny, badly furnished apartment on Staten Island and have our own place with our own things. I found a rent-controlled, two-bedroom place in a building on the south side of Staten Island. That satisfied me for a while. It was much bigger, brighter and more populated because it was a complex of six buildings.
Len and I went shopping for our first home furnishings together. I remember thinking, “How am I supposed to know what to buy?” I was 19, what did I know about buying furniture?
We found that we gravitated toward modern things. We chose a black naugahyde sofa, a slinky double-wide S-shaped chair covered in an orange and turquoise tapestry, a chrome floor lamp, a black metal and vinyl dinette set, and a lava lamp with an orange and blue floating blob.
When Len’s parents came over for dinner, they made a few snide comments about our furniture taste. Len’s mother irked me by saying that modern furniture was just a fad and we would eventually grow out of it! I thought if growing out of it meant buying crushed-blue- velvet-covered fruitwood chairs and a pink floral sofa covered in plastic like she had, I’d stay a kid forever!
In our new digs, I met all kinds of new people and some became friends. Everyone was usually older than me by about five years, but that was okay because by October I found out I was pregnant, which became a great equalizer. My friends and I now had more things in common.
I quit my dead-end job and found myself loving the idea of becoming a mother. I was lucky because Len’s salary provided enough income so I didn’t have to work, a whopping $12,000 a year!
We were hardly rich. In fact, if I wanted to buy a pizza before payday, I would have to scrounge for nickels and dimes in our coat pockets and drawers to come up with the spare change to buy it. But Len was smart and a hard worker. He knew he would be making more money every year being a CPA and moving up the corporate ladder, so I had the option of quitting my job.
Not working gave me hours and hours of free time. I mostly read and watched my belly grow. The library was only a few blocks away from our building complex, and I’d stroll over, pick up two or three books at a time, come home, and lay on the couch for hours reading. It was so decadent. I have photos of me doing this in various stages of gestation: belly small with me holding the book, belly bigger with the book resting in front of the belly, belly huge and the book balanced on its own!
I loved reading biographies and devoured them like potato chips. When April came, I found myself watching baseball too. I learned to be a Yankees fan. I especially loved Phil Rizzuto, “The Scooter,” calling the games. His voice was like velvet. It was relaxing to kick back, close my eyes and just listen to him. Part of me thought, “Enjoy this quiet freedom now because once I hatch this kid, nothing will be the same.” I was right about that.
One of Len’s accounting clients was Vita Herring at the time. He worked on site at their main office on Greenwich Street in Greenwich Village.
Every week he would come home proudly with a five-pound jar of herring in cream sauce as a perk! I wanted to throw up just looking at the jar of herring filets floating in their sea of sour cream, let alone enduring the foul fishy smell once the jar was opened, or how his lips looked coated in milky white fish sauce after he ate it. He loved to pretend he was going to kiss me with his fishy lips because it disgusted me so much! Who eats creamed herring? Don’t let me get started on gefilte fish either! It looks and smells like beige Jell-O at low tide!
On Saturdays, when I was pregnant that fall, I picked Len up from work at Vita Herring. The offices and factory were located in a desolate area near the East River on Greenwich Street and there was no bus service on weekends. It was a rough neighborhood filled with dilapidated, abandoned buildings and drug dealers on street corners. This was when New York was a combat zone, derelict and almost bankrupt.
Len always got out of work late. In fact, he never arrived on time for anything if he was coming from work. He rarely made it home for dinner most nights before 8 p.m. even if he said he’d be home by six.
Years later, after our relationship eroded to a nub of its former self, I read a book about passive-aggressive men. The number-one characteristic they exhibit is making you wait for them. Uh-huh, that was Len. It was really annoying.
Back then we drove a hunter green Austen America. It was the size of a large sardine can with donuts for tires, hand crank windows for air conditioning and a bad heating system.
It was a speedy car though. I would drive it like a daredevil from Staten Island, speeding over the Verrazano Bridge, cutting across Brooklyn, avoiding untold pot holes that could snap the suspension like a chicken wing, and over to Vita Herring in Greenwich Village. I was four months pregnant by then.
Len would tell me to pick him up by 2 p.m., but he never showed up until 4 or later. Each time he convinced me he wouldn’t keep me waiting again. Each time I felt like Charlie Brown getting ready to kick the football that Lucy pulls away at the last minute.
This began a bad precedent, that Len’s career was more important than me. I saw my father value his work and family this way, and my brother too. In my family wives were expected to tolerate this behavior, to suck it up. But there is a fine line between working hard to get ahead, and working hard to run away. It took me a while to realize that Len did both. He worked hard because he became good at what he did. In time I also realized that working hard was a great excuse to disappear.
To pass the time, as I waited for Len in the car, I’d have long conversations with my baby. I would talk and as he listened I could feel him rolling around like a fluttering butterfly. It tickled and confirmed that he heard me. The baby and I would converse for hours. I would tell him how excited I was to meet him, how I would never let him down, that I would love him no matter what he did and that we would have a lot fun playing, traveling and going to museums once he was born.
I was excited to become a mother. All the energy I had for school, experiencing New York, studying Judaism and getting married, I now wanted to put into mothering. I was ready to be a mom, to start my family, but I realized I was still a little unclear about the birthing process. What the heck goes on during labor??
Back then, no one would talk to me about it directly. In this day and age of 24/7 tell-all on the Internet, it’s hard to believe a pregnant woman could be left so much in the dark. My doctor just said, “It will come and be over before you know it.”
That wasn’t helpful. I made a pact with my neighbor Lisa, who had her baby three months ahead of me, to tell me all about it. But all she would say once she got home was, “You’ll see,” and made a sour face with no more details. My mother said she had no idea what happened because she had the drug cocktail “twilight sleep.” I thought, “I want some of that,” until I found out it was no longer available because it caused birth defects!
I decided to research medical books on the subject and then got freaked out. The graphic details answered all my questions. This was going to happen to me?
It wasn’t a total surprise, but I had no idea about the nitty gritty of it. I read about epidurals, episiotomies, forceps deliveries, fetal monitors and C-sections. I had no idea!
I wasn’t sure how to deal with all of this. Luckily, I also found a book about natural childbirth and how much better it was for the baby and the mother not to have invasive medical procedures. As long as there were no medical complications, you could control labor pains by breathing or panting like a dog into a paper bag. That sounded doable.
I convinced Len to go with me to the natural childbirth classes. He wasn’t sure he was cut out to be this new kind of involved dad, especially being in the delivery room. He had to participate in the classes in order to know how to coach me through labor and to be allowed in the delivery room. I loved this idea of him by my side through it all, but Len’s face would turn to ash and he would break out into a sweat whenever we talked about it.
But I was gung ho. No matter what, I wanted to have this baby the way nature intended, no forceps, no needles in my spine, no fetal monitors stuck up me. I had the support of the nurse who taught the class and stood ready to meet this thing head on.
I realized then that I was the kind of person who liked knowing what my options were and then taking charge.
The months I spent reading, resting, walking and watching baseball helped me prepare for this enormous event. I naturally stored up energy, saving my physical and emotional resources for the baby. The crib was built, the diapers bought and the stroller assembled.
My due date was July 2, 1971. That came and went. Len got more and more anxious. We rehearsed the breathing and his coaching techniques. We packed the suggested supplies: a paper bag, swabs to wet my lips, lollypops to suck on, a night gown, slippers, and a blanket and clothes to bring our baby home in. We were ready to go.
To offset the waiting game, Len and I would entertain ourselves by watching my bare belly morph and contort into odd shapes as our son wriggled himself into position. Sometimes we would sing songs to our baby.
Len had an old beat-up folk guitar and could play three chords, which is all you need to know in order to play every folk song. Len loved Pete Seeger; strumming and singing, “Turn! Turn! Turn!” or “Little Boxes,” we watched my belly undulate like a small sea serpent inside of me was grooving to the music.
Len was warming up to fatherhood. Our son Joel had his first music lessons, in utero, which is maybe why he started a rock band and wrote songs before he turned 15. From the time Joel heard rock music as a little guy, he would dance around the house, hopping like a little monkey from chair to couch, rocking on his air guitar, wearing terry cloth wrist bands like the pros! He put on shows for us, writing out his lyrics on paper so we could follow him as he performed. The first song he wrote and sang was called “Funky Peanut.” It went something like this, “Funky Peanut, Funkkkyy Peanuttt, Fuuunkkkky Peeeanuuuut.” I thought he was so talented!
On July 5th at 11 p.m., I started to have contractions close together. Time to head to the hospital. I was calm. Len was not.
I squeezed myself into the front seat of our little car and Len drove us. We lived about 20 minutes away. Len was so nervous that I put on the radio to distract him. Alison Steele was a DJ on WNEW, my favorite late-night radio show. Her nickname was “The Night Bird.” She sounded like a songbird with cotton in her mouth and crooned, “This is for all you cats out there who want a mellow sound to sleep to.” She played Dylan’s “Lay Lady Lay.” Perfect!
Len kept stopping at the traffic lights although no one else was on the road. My contractions sped up. I gripped the dashboard yelling, “Just go through the fucking red lights! Don’t stop, don’t stop…pant, pant, pant!
So much for staying calm and breathing to ease the pain and panic! Labor is a force of nature, like a volcano or tsunami. You can try and prepare for it, but there’s no way in hell that you really can.
We got to the ER and they rushed me to the labor room. Everything else is mostly a blur. I do remember a testy elderly nurse telling me “It’s not that bad honey, just quiet down.” Hell, what did she know! The pain felt like a hot knife searing me. No breathing in the world could ease this pain!
But I refused all drugs because my fear of the medical alternatives was more than the fear of pain.
Twelve hours later I gave birth naturally. I did it! We did it!
I remember Len trying to coach me during labor, but I think I was swearing at him and batted him away. They said this might happen.
He did come into the delivery room just in time to see our beautiful son Joel light up the world. Len thought he might faint, but he held it together. We both took turns holding Joel, swaddled in a blue flannel blanket. Our little family was born. Everyone was all right.
Labor and delivery are impossible to explain. So are the emotions.
After all the pain and waiting, the extreme high I felt holding our newborn son was indescribable, like finishing a marathon and entering heaven simultaneously!
The mother in me kick-started immediately. This was the first, most complete moment of my life. Now I knew what I was meant to do.