Mr. Right

Mr. Right

WO MR Right ARTBy Nancy Ludmerer

My mother had a stroke in 2010. Since then, her left leg is like putty; her left arm curls uselessly against her chest, like a broken wing. Pre-stroke, she lived in Florida, drove, and did her own shopping. Now she must have every physical need attended to. Yet, as we’ve discussed, better that her body – not her mind – failed. Her perceptions and memory remain clear.

Or so it seemed– until she told me she was getting married. It was during breakfast, as she sat in her wheelchair, sipping coffee and chewing on an English muffin, her reading glasses at the ready.  After breakfast she’d go back to her book.

“His name is Baruch,” she told me. “They’re making me marry him.”

“Who’s they?”

“You know, them.” She paused. “It’s not so bad. He’s a nice Jewish boy.”

“Mom, you’re 94. You can’t be marrying a boy.”

“That’s just an expression. He’s no kid.”

“But why get married now, at 94?”

“I’m not going to sleep with him without being married.”

“Why sleep with anyone?”

“It gets cold at night here in New York.” She didn’t seem upset. “You’ll see. Come next Sunday, I’ll be married.”

Was it a hallucination? A dream that wouldn’t let go? Sometimes my mother’s home health aide telephoned me at work because my mother didn’t want to get up. Was her marriage fantasy a rejection of the dependency that age, and the stroke, had forced upon her? Or was it signaling yet another loss, beyond the physical — the loss of self that we were so grateful hadn’t accompanied her stroke.

Where did the name Baruch come from?

Baruch means “blessed” in Hebrew. Was Baruch a metaphor, a figure from the hereafter, waiting to take her? My father’s name was Morris, not Baruch, and if there was anyone she was going to meet “over there” it was him – not someone named Baruch.

Had she known any Baruchs? I dated a Baruch once, but that was thirty-five years ago, when I was in law school in California, and my parents only heard about him during one of my visits home. Baruch was the son of our congregational rabbi in Queens and we’d met again because he was teaching at Berkeley. My family wasn’t observant – and certainly weren’t regular shul-goers. Still, when I asked my father cautiously how he’d feel if I married Baruch, he said it would be an honor: the rabbi’s son. When that relationship ended, though, it ended. There was nothing “arranged” about whom I would date or marry.

A generation earlier, my mother too married for love. In 1939 she was 19, studying library science at Simmons Colllege in Boston. At home in Jackson Heights for the holidays, she didn’t have anywhere to go on New Year’s Eve. A family friend asked my father, a poor but respectable City College graduate studying accounting at night, to find a New Year’s Eve date for Helen Strochak. He arranged for his friend Irving to take Helen and they double-dated. But Morris took one look at the petite, charming Helen and thought “am I crazy?” The rest is history – with no Baruch in sight.

Was the wedding fantasy a delayed effect of her stroke?

Right after the stroke, we read aloud to each other, to strengthen both her weakened facial muscles (which engendered the cute, crooked smile she has to this day) and her concentration. We began with Sylvia Beach’s essay about opening an American lending library in Paris in 1919. To borrow books you had to become a member, with a membership card. “This membership card was as good as a passport” wrote Beach. My mother and I both loved that essay, a testament to the power of books to transport us.

Soon my mother was reading as before. This was critical to her. She’d worked as a librarian before becoming a full-time mother and homemaker. Her love of books – and libraries – was a constant in her life. It sustained her after my father’s death as well as after her stroke.

As I pondered her fantasy marriage to the mysterious Baruch, I noticed the Posman’s bookmark peeking out of her book. It was the last book I purchased at Posman’s Books in Grand Central before it closed.

If my mother had her libraries, I had Posman’s Books in Grand Central. When I first learned many months ago that Posman’s would close, I could barely walk by the store on my way to the train; it was like having to see a former lover every day. Posman’s was my refuge; after a particularly arduous day at work, I’d lose myself among its tables, browsing for “finds.” Once I purchased a book of simple crossword puzzles for my mother instead of a novel. I’d read that crossword puzzles provide mental exercise that wards off dementia. My mother had no interest. “Don’t buy those for me, Nan,” she said, “Buy me a regular book.”

On Posman’s last day, I bought my mother the novel she was now reading: Eve Harris’s “The Marrying of Chani Kaufman,” set in an orthodox Jewish community in London.  Now, while my mother finished breakfast, I paged through the book, reading about Chani on her wedding day, “rigid under layers of itchy petticoats” listening to the men singing behind closed doors.

As my mother reached for her reading glasses, I sat silent beside her, absorbed in the details of Chani’s constricting hand-me-down seed-pearl-encrusted wedding dress — a “passport, her means of escape” from her family home.

Like a passport out of her present life, the novel had transported my mother into the body of Chani Kaufman. Chani was not only real to her, but she had become Chani, about to be wed in an arranged marriage.

Days later, my mother laughed when reminded of her fantasy. She’d finished the book and knew her own marriage wasn’t imminent. “For a little while, I believed it,” she said.

As for the groom in “The Marrying of Chani Kaufman”?

His name was Baruch.

Author’s Note: Around the time of my mother’s wedding fantasy, I read an article about the effect of reading fiction on the brain. Twenty Emory University students had MRIs of their brains taken while all reading the same novel. The study’s authors found consistent changes in each student’s cerebral cortex, and concluded that reading fiction transports the reader biologically, not just figuratively.  That’s surely what happened to my mom. Sadly, she’s reading less these days. The cake for her 95th birthday was inscribed: “Helen – 95 and Still Beautiful.” Baruch doesn’t know what he’s missing.

Nancy Ludmerer’s fiction and non-fiction have appeared in The Kenyon Review, Cimarron Review, Vogue, San Francisco Chronicle, and other magazines. Her essay “Kritios Boy” (published in Literal Latte) was mentioned as a Notable Essay of 2013. She lives in NYC with her husband Malcolm and cat Sandy, a brave refugee from the storm for which he is named.



After Birth

After Birth

By Eve Rosenbaum

This is the third post in our What is Family? blog series in honor of the season. Your favorite bloggers write about what family means to them. Come back tomorrow for the next post in the series.

eveI spent two hours smoothing down buns with hair gel and bobby pins, fluffing tutus, and trying to keep their costumes free of crumbs and crayons as we waited to be called to the stage. I had never imagined myself as a backstage mom, and yet I had written my name on the list, volunteering to keep ten three-to-five-year-old girls alive and stain-free at the year-end ballet recital. My daughter was the youngest, nearly four, and the shortest. After herding them into the spotlight, I stood in the darkened wings, watching her in her white and pink costume, the one she’d been desperate to try on for weeks, gazing at it hanging in clear plastic on the closet door. She had been rehearsing for months. In less than three minutes it was over, and I guided the girls backstage once again. My daughter announced that she was now a ballerina.

It wasn’t just that I had never imagined myself as a backstage mom. Really, I never wanted to be a parent at all. Growing up in an Orthodox Jewish community, I always expected my life would progress down an orderly and pre-determined path: high school then marriage then kids then …  well, I wasn’t entirely sure what came after kids. More kids, probably. I saw my friends being steered into this life and, at first, I joined in their conversations about who would be first in our class to get married, where we would live. On Sabbath afternoons, we would walk to the houses of girls we knew who were already married with babies. I admit, for at least a couple of years, I wanted it too. My own home life was chaotic and sometimes violent, and I could imagine creating a home for myself and a family that would be nothing like where I came from. I could get married at nineteen and never look back. I could be that kind of girl.

By eleventh grade, that dream was dead. I resolved to never get married or have children, as I was positive that a traditional life would make me lose myself to the endless drudgery of carpool and cooking and keeping a kosher home. I was slowly drifting away from religion and by my last year of college I was firmly, determinedly secular. I realized that as much as I didn’t want to bring children into a traditional religious home, I also couldn’t imagine raising a child outside of Orthodox Judaism. Remaining childless seemed like the best, most responsible choice. Besides, I had never really wanted to be pregnant, had never fantasized about the joys of giving birth. I thought about adoption as a distant, distant possibility.

And then I met my partner. It was my second year of graduate school, her first day. She had just moved to town and by October we were dating. I knew from the start that she wanted children. As our relationship turned serious, I had to decide whether I could truly become a parent, and whether I even wanted to reconsider. Religious issues came up almost immediately: Jen isn’t Jewish and she would be the one to give birth. I hadn’t wanted to raise a secular child; could I raise a child who wouldn’t even be Jewish?  At twenty-two I felt too young to make these decisions but they seemed so distant. Jen and I talked in hypotheticals, imagining our future daughter. We would name her Madeline, we decided, and we would buy her a red coat with black buttons and teach her about art, about the world. We were playing, and this amorphous child became very real to us. I could almost see myself as her parent, a child I hadn’t given birth to but would love unconditionally regardless. She flitted through our conversations like a dream bird, and I told myself how easy it would be to parent this imaginary daughter.

By twenty-six, our daydreams turned serious and our conversations now included topics like fertility monitors, sperm banks, and birthing plans. I knew I wanted the biological father to be Jewish, even if under religious law the baby wouldn’t be considered Jewish. All we knew about the anonymous donor was that he played guitar and clarinet, liked to bake, had seasonal allergies, and that he juggled. We started calling him Jewish Juggler.

Three months later Jen was pregnant, and what had seemed like a game before was immediately, unavoidably, real. Now my family acted strange on the phone. My brother said he didn’t know if he could ever speak to me again. He had to think about it, he said. My parents reminded me that I could never bring this baby to their house, to their community, because as far as their friends knew, I was still single. They wouldn’t display her pictures next to their other grandkids. My sister said, “What did you expect?”

As we prepared for the birth, our conversations turned to the imaginary once again. We would name her Madeline, like we’d decided years before. Jen painted turtles and fish onto canvas for the nursery. We bought feetie pajamas and kimono-wrapped onesies and a tiny striped hat with a bee stitched into the front. I was terrified. My doubts about becoming a parent resurfaced, my anxiety about raising a non-Jewish child, one who wasn’t even biologically mine. Would I love her the way a parent is supposed to love a child? Would she grow up and resent having me instead of a father? I had never been one of those girls who smiled at babies or even noticed them. Could this one be different, even if she didn’t look anything like me? I was scared the answer would be no.

In May, after three days of labor, it was time to get her out. Jen was running a fever. I stood near Jen’s shoulders, watching the baby emerge, watching as a team of doctors pulled her quickly away and started running tests. It was a blur. My legs were numb. I thought, “I didn’t get to cut the cord,” and “This is not what’s supposed to happen.”  They started wheeling Madeline out of the room and Jen urged, “Go with her.”

I followed. I didn’t leave Madeline as they cleaned her off, hooked her up to machines, put a breathing tube in her nose. She looked so small, so bruised and purple. She looked grouchy. If she could speak, she would have lectured me for making her go through something so unpleasant. I stood back while doctors and nurses hovered around her. I had always known that babies were small; even that much was obvious to someone as oblivious as I was. But I never realized just how small she would look on that table, arms swaddled tightly against her chest, fists tucked under her chin.

In that moment, it was just me and her. I realized that it didn’t matter what my brother thought or who her biological father was, or even if she shared my genes or liked the same television shows that I did. Bringing her into the world wasn’t about pleasing my parents or following a set path of how my life should turn out. In that moment, I knew that it was about protecting this child, keeping her safe and thriving, keeping her alive. Even at only a few minutes old, I could see how determined she was to live and I knew that her life was my responsibility. I was a parent; more than that, I was her parent, no matter how complicated.

Madeline was in the ICU for a week before we brought her home. Only Jen’s name is allowed on the birth certificate, but there’s no doubt she is my daughter too.  As I stood in the wings watching her first ballet recital, I understood that being a parent isn’t just about sharing your DNA.  It’s about opening the world for your children, showing them your passions and helping them develop their own. I will teach my daughter everything I can. It’s been a privilege to learn from her in return.

Eve Rosenbaum is a writer, editor, and occasional academic in Iowa City.  You can find her on Twitter: @everosenbaum. 

To read all of the essays in this series click here.