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2011-11-21 | |
In the mornings, in the light and airy fourth-floor New York City Brownstone apartment, I watch my mother bustle about the rooms. I watch her put a wave in her hair, put on a belt that accents her narrow waist, put on red lipstick, splash on a lingering, perfumy scent. I love the way she dresses, the way she wears her clothes. I love all the things she does and follow her around. I watch her arrange flowers on her dressing table, hang lace curtains, create delicate embroidery. I accompany her to her choral lessons. She takes me to school. I play waitress when the ladies come for tea. When I grow up, I want to do all the things she does. I want to be like her.
"She's the spitting image," the Ukrainian and Austrian ladies say to my mother when they come for tea. They always wear soapy smelling 4711 Kolonische Wasser. They call me "kracynia" -- the pretty one. My mother likes when they say that." This one takes after me," she always says; "The other one (meaning my older sister) takes after her father." The ladies call my mother Irina Makarivna. They don't call her by our family name, my father's name. That's because they knew her in Ukraine from the day she was born. Me, they call "Olha," "Olya," "Olucia," or "Olunia." Sometimes they call me "Kitty." Sometimes my father calls me "skrab," which means "little itch" or "rascal." My sister calls me "pest." They never call me by my full name – Olya Bohdanna Makarova-Semeniukivna because it's too long. My mother's best friend, Madame Lubov, calls me "nevistka." That means she wants me to marry her son. But I am only seven and don't plan to marry anybody, least of all, her noisy son Boris. I'm already stuck with my sister for the rest of my life.
While the ladies dote on me and my mother, my sister sulks. "Why don't you take this child," she had asked the ladies when I was born.
"Katerina, dear," they said, "surely you want your darling little sister."
I feel bad that my mother doesn't notice that my sister is unhappy. But sometimes I don't because she kicks me under the table when my mother isn't looking.
My older sister is allowed to walk to school. She leaves early and won't wait.
So I get to go to first grade with my mother. My mother and I always hail a cab. That's because it takes her so long to get ready that we're always late. But I don't mind. I love stepping out of cabs with my elegant mother. Sometimes on the way I ask her to stop and get me cough drops, the chewy, gummy kind, and she always does. She never asks me why I select only cough drops. The teachers do. They ask me why I have a perpetual cold. Neither does she ask my sister why she refuses to walk to school with me. I suppose she could order my sister not to be so bossy and we could walk to school together, but my mother just takes me there herself.
Sometimes in school a teacher gives me a part for a play that will be on the Ukrainian radio show. I love going to the recording studio and playing with the equipment and listening to my voice played back on the tape. After all the kids who were picked are finished with recording their lines, the teacher gives each of us a Ukrainian picture book. Last time, he inscribed my book to "Sonechko," which means something like "Little Sunbeam."
My sister didn't like that.
My father thinks my mother's beautiful. He's always looking at her. He's always taking photos of her. She always poses confidently, looking straight into the camera.
Sometimes, I'm in the photos too. When I look at them, I wonder about the restless, squirming girl I see who is unable to sit still. I wonder if this girl with tousled hair, with a few strands falling into her face, will ever look like her mother.
Sometimes when I am bored, I look at old wedding photos of my parents. My father is looking at my mother, can't take his eyes off her. She is looking straight into the camera.
Other men are drawn to my mother in a mysterious way. The entire chorus of men escorts her home after her choral practice, after her voice lessons. She giggles at their show of gentlemenliness as they kiss her hand when they greet her; she laughs with delight as they make those spitting image comments about me and as they exclaim about her rich, resonant voice.
I'm bored with having to sit still listening to her practice for hours and hours, and even more bored with having to walk all the way home with all these strange men. I decide to be surly, walk two steps behind.
Later on, my mother says brightly, "A man need only be a bit handsomer than the devil, but a young girl must always be smiling and pretty."
I am excited when my father comes home from work. He brings my mother flowers, boxes of candy, perfume, records that play Vienna waltz music. Sometimes my father brings me and my sister presents too, like a gyroscope that balances perfectly while its colors swirl, chocolate bars with scenes from Hansel and Gretel, building blocks for an entire city of skyscrapers. One time he brings home a television. My sister and I have a fun time building the city while watching TV. My mother lets us watch whatever we want. Occasionally, she watches with us. Our favorite is "I Love Lucy."
"Lucy is so silly!" my mother says one day when we are watching the episode where the rice boils over and goes all over the floor.
But I think Lucy is fun to watch. I like watching that episode with the rice almost as much as I like watching the washing machine break down and cover the floor with suds. I like to imagine them dripping into the downstairs lady's apartment.
Some evenings we go for dinner parties at other people's houses. I am always excited and want to get there as soon as possible because I can run around with the other kids and hide under the table and eat torte and hazelnut tarts and petit fours and get a sip of fizzy champagne and get to stay up late. But we always arrive at least one hour late. That's because my mother says that it's impolite to come at the exact time because the hostess is still putting on her lipstick and hasn't yet made the hors d'oeuvres. I know my mother is right because the few times people have come to our house at the exact time, she was still in her dressing gown and hadn't yet made the hors d'oeuvres
I absorb that one always has to arrive at an least hour late. That coming at the exact time is inconsiderate.
One day when I arrive at school the teacher asks me why I'm always late.
"I beg you, Madame," I say. "My mother says it's not polite to be among the first to arrive."
“Just like Irina," she says and laughs. "You better tell your mother that one hour late is an unexcused absence."
If that is the case, I am worried, perhaps my mother and I needn't bother coming to school at all.
One day, the teacher wants to see my mother. My sister's record is stunning, my mother says, but mine is that I eat too many cough drops and never eat lunch and don't pay attention and am always late.
"I'm hungry," I tell her. "The food is slimy and we think it's Alpo," I say. "So I eat cough drops.” “I’m bored too,” I tell her. So I read The Bobbsey Twins under my desk. I recommend that she let me walk to school alone.
"A child your age?" my mother says. Next thing that happens is my teachers take away my cough drops and my books. A school monitor stands over me telling me to eat lunch but I spit it all out into a napkin when she isn't watching. I begin to wonder whose side my mother is on. I begin to dread school, and particularly, lunch.
During summer evenings in the country, my mother and father take me and my sister with them when they step out to a outdoor party. The orchestra strikes up a tune and the tenor sings. My favorite is "Zacharovany Vechory" (Enchanted Evenings), a song that fills me with the wonder that lies in the darkening night. The men line up and bow and ask my mother to dance. All the women wait to be asked to dance with my father. I love it when my father bows and requests a dance with me. When we dance the polka, my feet never touch the ground and the patio is spinning.
Late in the evening, they play the Bunny Hop and all the children line up. Then it’s time for kids to go home. My father takes me and my sister home and returns to my mother. When I get home at midnight, I feel like Cinderella. I look up and see that all the stars are out.
I like those frosty nights when my mother goes out dressed in a long shimmery gown and sparkly earrings and my father with his black suit with coattails. They are going to the expatriate ball. I can't go because I haven't made my debut. But I don't mind not going. That's because Stephanie, our teenage babysitter, gets to come over. She lets me put on her orange nail polish and tells me about her boyfriends while we listen to the Drifters and the Beach Boys on her transistor radio.
My mother doesn't notice my nail polish but the kids in school are impressed. One day my teacher points it out.
"Young girls mustn't wear orange nail polish," my mother tells me. "They must be subtle and demure." "Stephanie is a bad influence," she says.
From then on she has Madame Evgenia, who has known my mother since she was a little girl, come over. Madame expects me to sit quietly at the table and have tea while she reads me endless Ukrainian storybooks about princes who slay dragons to win their princesses. I am bored sitting quietly at the table with that stack of books. When I jump on the bed like I do to impress Stephanie, Madame is not impressed.
She tells my mother I do not behave like a young lady.
“Not like a young lady!” my mother exclaims.
I lose patience with my mother. I shout about the unfairness of having to spend five hours at the table politely drinking tea while she is out dancing at the Cinderella ball where the music is and having fun, fun, fun. "I want to wear sparkly earrings and a shimmery gown and go places in a coach or at least in a pumpkin or a cab," I say. “I don’t want to go to school, ” I cry out. “I want to watch Lucy on TV,” I shout. “I want to wear lipstick and be escorted home by a crowd of admiring men or at least a prince. Instead," I cry out, "I am stuck at school forced to eat Alpo or stuck at home and not even allowed to put on nail polish or jump on my bed."
My mother is shocked. “Pardon us, Madame,” my mother says to the babysitter.
Madame Evgenia responds with a smile. “Irina, darling, she says, “you must pay attention to what your child is up to.”
"Isn't she spoiled?" my sister says.
"This is a child upon whom nothing is lost," my father says.
“Bohdan,” my mother says to him. “You must be serious about this child’s upbringing.
“Sometimes I get tired of all these elderly ladies too,” my father says to me later with a wink.
From then on, my uncle sometimes comes over when my parents go out, and as usual, we play checkers. Sometimes we play chess. I win one time and he says that I cheated. I didn't.
The next day, my father comes home with a package. He says it's for my mother. That’s because she was surly and told him he’s not serious about my upbringing.
I am excited about my mother receiving a lovely gift. But suddenly I am worried. I spend my days with my mother, follow her around, so I am sure I know her better than my father does. I wonder if my father knows what I know: That she's very particular about some things. That she often doesn't notice other things. I am worried that she might not even notice or be pleased with the present.
I watch my father he walks into the parlor, but she doesn't see him. She is arranging her delicate caviar dinner snacks on a silver tray.
"Irina," he calls out. She turns around.
He hands her the box.
She opens it.
It's a dress, bright pink.
"But you know I can't wear that," she says matter of factly, "It's too loud, not my color."
The excited look on my father's face becomes a disappointed one. The dress is draped over a chair. The box falls to the floor. But I know my mother is right. She is always right about the color, about the fit. I cannot imagine her wearing that dress to her voice lessons, to her teas with ladies. Still, I wonder if she could have pretended to like the dress. I pretend to like those embroidered handkerchiefs the elderly ladies always give me. "Thank you," I say brightly, and that makes them happy. I don't tell them I prefer Kleenex.
Sometimes, my mother wears the dress as she bustles around the house. It has become her housedress. When I first see it on her, I am surprised that it looks quite pretty, its narrow belt accenting her waist, her hourglass figure, its flared skirt accenting her shapely legs, its vivid color contrasting with her dark hair.
It occurs to me that maybe my mother was wrong. That maybe she was wrong about the color, about the fit.
Yes, the dress seems very pretty to me, and my mother looks very lovely in it. But when I see it on her, it's the look on my father's face I think about and remember. I decide I don't want to be someone who is noticed in that mysterious way but doesn't notice others. I decide I don't care if I grow up to be beautiful. I decide that even now, despite all those "spitting image" comments I hear, I'm not like my mother, not like her at all.
My mother says I'm not allowed to play with the boys because they are too rough." A girl must be dainty like a flower," she always tells me. But the boys always want me on their team because I can run fast. Today, during recess, though I know I will get into trouble if my sister tells on me, I join the boys for a game of tag. I have a great time. I am wearing my patent leather shoes, a ribbon in my hair, and no one can catch me.
After school, my sister goes off to scouts.
My mother, as usual, is not there waiting among all the other mothers. So I take a cab home, just like I learned to do with my mother.
When I arrive, my mother is still at home, putting on her lipstick, getting ready to go out, to pick me up from school, to go to her choral practice. She surveys my scuffed shoes, my tousled hair, "Whatever happened to you?" she says pleasantly. "You need to tidy up."
She doesn't ask me how I got home. I suppose she doesn't notice. Neither does she ask what I have been doing.
Later on, Madame Evgenia, who also used to baby sit my mother when she was a child, is brushing the tangles out of my hair, telling me to keep still.
"You are a live wire," she says. "Nobody can keep up with you. Your mother was just like you when she was little."
I am amazed at what I just heard: My mother was once little? She was just like me? I think I am pleased, but I'm not too sure.
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