Chapter Two JINGLES
I got my first dog in 1952 when I was 10, a puppy to be shared with my brother and sister. It was the year Eisenhower came into office, High Noon was out in movie theaters, and Hemingway’s The Old Man and the Sea was published. Americans were taking their minds off the war in Korea by laughing at I Love Lucy or being converted to Christianity by a Catholic bishop named Fulton Sheen on their new television sets. The big news that year in Philadelphia was the murder of a 24-year-old New York pants salesman named Arnold Schuster, who, after seeing him on a subway, had fingered the nation’s most-wanted bank-robber Willie Sutton, a local hero because he had tunneled out of Philadelphia’s Eastern State Prison seven years earlier.
The dog was a female Cocker Spaniel, golden in every way, the newborn offspring of a neighbor’s dog. I marvel to this day that my parents agreed to let their children get a dog since making their kids happy was not high on their list of priorities. My father’s payment of $30 for the dog was more astonishing. The only thing I can think of that accounts for my parents doing something so entirely out of character is the possibility that they had had somewhat satisfying sex the night before agreeing to let a dog into our home. I picked the puppy from a litter of six and carried her home in my arms. It was the happiest day of my childhood.
The dog joined the Levin’s of West Philadelphia, made up of my parents Morris and Anna, my older brother Harvey, my younger sister Sherry, and me. My Uncle Ben, known as “the man who came to dinner,” also lived with us. The story goes that he showed up one night for a roast chicken dinner and stayed fourteen years because of the kindness of his brother and sister-in-law. It is more likely he showed up for a meal, was unmarried and gainfully employed, and his brother and sister-in-law seized upon the opportunity to bring a few extra bucks into the household.
After a family conference, the puppy was named Jingles, in honor of Jingles B. Jones, a sidekick in a western we watched on television; the main character was Wild Bill Hickock, played by Guy Madison; Andy Devine was the dim-witted Jingles.
Westerns were a main form of entertainment in the early days of television. I personally have never understood why they went out of style. I liked westerns so much that a few years after Wild Bill went off the air, I signed up for a college course about the rise of the West in America expecting to get the lowdown on my favorite people: Wyatt Earp, Doc Holliday, the Lone Ranger, and Hopalong Cassidy. Instead, the professor assigned two books about Andrew Jackson and informed the class that the American West went no further than Tennessee. The only thing I remember from the course was that Andy (Jackson, not Devine) had a wife named Rachel, who was a bigamist.
My all-time favorite Western was John Sturgus’ 1957 The Gunfight At the OK Corral, which I first saw when I was fourteen and have viewed over 200 times since. The screenplay was written by Leon Uris, who went on to write the novel, Exodus. Gunfight stars Burt Lancaster as Wyatt Earp and Kirk Douglas as Doc Holliday and no one who plays these parts since can compare. I think it is Dennis Hopper’s first film; he plays a fruity young cowboy. In the film, Wyatt goes to the aid of his brothers, Virgil and Morgan. Doc is dying of tuberculosis but he stands with “the only friend I ever had” as the Earps come up against the McLaurys and Clantons in Tombstone, Arizona in 1881. The theme of the film is loyalty, a characteristic markedly devoid within the Levin family. Wyatt and Doc became my role models for life, and I became forever unforgiving in the face of the slightest gesture that smacked of treachery or betrayal among family members or friends. I especially liked Wyatt because in real life he married Sadie Marcus, a Jewish girl like me.
The house Jingles came to live in was a war zone, a battleground that raged almost nightly as the verbal bullets of my parents ricocheted against the walls and shot up into the bedrooms upstairs often waking Harvey, Sherry and I from sleep.
My father bought the house just after D-day in 1946. It was a four bedroom, semi-detached place on the 6100 block of Ellsworth Street. A reclusive Armenian lady who had cats lived in the house that attached to ours. We shared a spacious patio with a gentile doctor whose wife committed suicide; my father cut her down from where she hanged herself.
The house had an enclosed porch at the front, with built -in bookcases packed with books. Good books. A Mark Twain collection. Charles Dickens. Pearl Buck novels. Gone With the Wind. And my favorites: everything Frank Yerby ever wrote.
Frank Yerby was a black novelist who penned historical fiction. Unlike Richard Wright, who spilled his heartache over racism in America on paper, Yerby did not write about the black experience. Instead, he wrote romantic tales like Captain from Castile, Prides’s Castle and Jarrett’s Jade. In 1946 he was on the best-seller list with The Foxes of Harrow, alongside Erich Maria Remarque and Thomas B. Costain. I started reading Yerby at about the time, in 1955, that he exiled himself to Madrid, where he hung out until his death in 1991. When I was thirteen, Yerby brought hope into my life and the promise of romance. It is through his books that I learned that I could be happy, if only I remained devoted and faithful to those I loved. If Yerby were alive today, I’d smack him silly for putting such lies in my head.
The first floor of the house was painted aqua, a color I loathe to this day. My father spent a half a year of Sundays painting the living room, dining room, stairway, and upstairs hallway this color. He worked meticulously on this paint job, sanding walls so that the paint would go on smoothly, cutting in corners and edging the ceiling, and I remain amazed to this day that he could do something so dull week after week on his only day of rest.
Try as I might I cannot remember the kitchen of that house. I don’t know if it had a window; I can’t envision where the stove was; I vaguely recall a kitchen table. I have no remembrance of my mother cooking in the kitchen and can’t conjure up any smells that might have come from her concoctions. But I distinctly remember coming home from elementary school on occasion to find a red police car parked in our driveway and a cop named Izzy sitting at the kitchen table drinking beer with my mother. At my fortieth high school reunion, a former playmate recalled the car and the visitor.
“Remember your mother’s lover, the cop?” she said.
I was stunned, and it showed.
“Come on; you must have known about it.”
In fact, I didn’t, until that moment, and even after hearing it, I don’t believe it’s true. While my mother loved to make sexual innuendoes, and listen to and tell dirty jokes, I think she was, like many women of her generation, quite prudish. I think most of her sexual activity was vicarious. When I was ten, I went looking for a needle and thread in her bedroom drawer and found a small cache of pornographic playing cards under her bras and slips. Bananas, German Shepherds, black socks, and other props were prominently featured on the cards. I found the cards interesting because German Shepherds were among the dogs I liked best and I hadn’t realized they could be so creative. After my mother died, I took the cards from her drawer to save her posthumous embarrassment. I threw them in a kitchen junk drawer of my house thinking that this ancient pack, printed long before Penthouse and cable television made porn obsolete, might be historically valuable. I forgot about the cards for years but when my own child was ten and it was time to initiate discussions with him about sex I remembered the hidden deck and feared he might find the cards the way I had. He’d be looking for a hammer or flashlight and low and behold, Mom’s collection of dirty pictures would surface. Panicked, I threw the deck in the bottom of a garbage bag and carried it to the curb with the rest of the trash.
The younger neighborhood kids hung out in the driveway behind the houses on Ellsworth Street and the older boys played half-ball on 62nd Street. We walked together in gender and age-specific groups to and from the William Cullen Bryant Elementary School. At noon we walked home for lunch, and our mothers were there to feed us Campbell’s soup and peanut butter and jelly sandwiches. My mother was the exception.
The teachers at Bryant were adamant that we learn to diagram sentences and put commas where they belong. We learned our multiplication tables the old-fashioned way – by rote. I was given an assignment in 5th grade to memorize the Lincoln Gettysburg address, and I know every line of it to this day. Every once in a while there was an air-raid drill, in preparation for a feared Russian atomic attack on Philadelphia. Each student had a duffle bag filled with a pillow, a blanket, and cans of soup, in case we came up from the school’s basement shelter and found the neighborhood and our parents gone. Even at six-years-old I wondered how I was going to survive without a can opener.
The mothers of West Philly did their socializing on 60th Street as they moved from the butcher shop to the hairdresser to the shoe store. My mother had a group of girlfriends with whom she played Canasta on Tuesday nights. Most of the women were expert knitters and needle pointers, my mother among the best of them. Late in her life, Anna surprised me with a gift of an elaborate needlepoint of pink flowers in a clay pot, the only present from her I ever liked. It has hung on my living room wall for forty-five years.
The parents in the neighborhood were ambitious for their children. Ballet lessons, piano, and art classes were provided to the girls; Hebrew school, piano and art classes for the boys. There was hardly a Jewish house in the neighborhood that didn’t prominently display on its dining room wall a painting of oranges and apples, courtesy of Mrs. Schacter’s art instruction and her deep commitment to making at least one of her remarkably untalented students the next Cezanne. Mr. Bardy was a household staple as he went door to door schlepping his Bach and Beethoven sheet music to a bunch of kids whose musical experience was limited to listening to their mother’s Eddie Fisher recording, Tell Me Why, which is what we all wondered about Mr. Bardy. In hindsight, I see it as an extraordinary thing that the barely educated parents of Jewish West Philadelphia recognized the need for their children to know that the background of the Long Ranger was Rossini’s William Tell Overture, one of Mr. Bardy’s favorite piano assignments.
It was a peaceful time in West Philadelphia in the 50’s: no robberies, no killings, no spousal abuse, no infidelities, no drunks or drug addicts, and no child abuse – that anyone except those involved in such things knew of.
When I try to remember specific elements of the West Philly house, the main thing that comes to my mind is the back staircase, which led from the rear of the second-floor hallway, next to my bedroom, and down to the kitchen. I recollect this because sometimes I would sit at the top of the stairs in the middle of the night listening to my parent’s fight.
My mother would curse and cry. “I want a divorce, and I don’t want the kids.”
My father argued, “I can’t take the kids, I have to work.”
My mother: “I don’t want the son-of-a-bitch- bastards.”
Sometimes they’d try to make a deal: “I’ll take Harvey,” my mother offered, “and you take Linda and Sherry.”
My father: “How am I going to take care of Linda and Sherry?”
“You wanted them,” my mother accused, “you figure out what to do with them.”
I’d propose that my parents stayed together because neither of them wanted to get stuck with their children, but in fact, they continued their diatribes long after their children were grown and out the door to their own troubled lives, which means there was something else holding Anna and Morris together. Habit. Fear. Tradition. Social expediency. Economics. All of these things. Who knows what ties one person to another? It might even have been love, though neither of them would have recognized such an emotion in each other or anyone else.
My parents met on the boardwalk at the Ritz Hotel in Atlantic City, just a few months before England, France, and Italy handed Czechoslovakia over to Hitler. My mother was the second youngest of fifteen children born to Polish- Jewish immigrants who had fled the pogroms that were making life hell for the Jews of Volozhin, in the Russian Pale, a ghetto that, by law, kept the reviled tribes from the rest of society. I once told my son, in all seriousness, that the best thing that ever happened to the family was having my grandparents chased out of Eastern Europe, otherwise, “we’d be standing in a bread line in Kiew now, me in a babushka and you in a coat lined with newspaper.”
My maternal grandparents, Martha and Hyman, and the first few of their children were among the forty-three families who, in 1882, left Castle Garden, where they had disembarked, and headed by train to Bradway, in Salem County, New Jersey; the town later changed its name to Norma, in honor of the station master’s daughter. With help from the Alliance Israelite Universalle, a foundation set up by the German-Jewish philanthropist, Maurice Baron de Hirsch, to help the Jews of the Pale, the Silversteins became a part of the first Jewish farm community in America. I have a photo on my wall of my grandparents and their fifteen kids at the wedding of my Aunt Yeddie; my mother, wearing a headband, was about six at the time. The story goes that Hyman came to America with his first wife, had a daughter, and when his wife died soon after that, he went back to Poland and married her sister, Mottel, Americanized to Martha. Together they thought it a good idea to have fourteen more children. In the wedding photo I see a distinguished old man with a neatly trimmed gray beard, wearing a bowler hat, a carnation on his lapel. My grandmother is by his side, her arm on his shoulder; she is wearing a long black dress and a string of pearls; her dark hair has a flower in it; in her seventies, she is a pretty woman.
The New Jersey farm was a miserable place. From what I’ve read about this farming experiment there were no bathroom facilities; only an outhouse and a yard pump for water. A tin washtub was used for heating water and bathing. Inhabitants were tormented by mosquitos and flies in the summer and freezing water in the winter. Even worse was the inevitable battles with poison ivy. My mother once told me she was a late walker because she knew that in her family as soon as a child’s feet hit the ground, he or she was put to work picking fruit.
The community established a synagogue, Eben Ha’Ezer, and there was a public school, although I don’t think my mother or her siblings got much of an education. My mother never mentioned going to high school, so I don’t know if she did. Eventually, the harsh farm life of Norma was too much for my grandparents. They sold their land and moved to Jackson Street in the southern part of Philadelphia, where my grandfather got work as a baker. My mother was eight when he died. In the forty years I knew my mother she never once talked about her childhood. Anything I know I learned from my eight aunts. I’d asked my mother what it was like to have fourteen siblings to play with. Did she ever have a dog? How did all those people fit into one house? Did she get along with her mother? Not a word of an answer ever passed my mother’s lips other than to say that her father was the sweetest of men and her mother fell over dead during a Passover dinner after she got up to look out the window after hearing an ambulance go by, which is what you get for being nosy. My mother dismissed her childhood as if it had never existed, and because of this, she was unable to let her children have childhoods of their own. To do so would have brought back to her all that she had lost.
Anna was a dark-haired beauty with blue eyes that reflected the sea at dawn. A photo of her when she was twenty shows her dressed in a well-tailored suit, wearing a wide-brimmed hat, looking very much like a woman who had places to go in life, places far away from a New Jersey farm or rundown South Philadelphia house, and the memories of both. If this was the sight Morris saw upon first meeting Anna, his fate was sealed. Physical beauty was of utmost importance to my father, not kindness or character. When he spoke of my mother both before and after her death, his first thought was, “Wherever we went she was the prettiest woman in the room.” In the fifties, with Marilyn Monroe the model of American womanhood, Anna became a blond. It not as flattering a look as her dark hair had been.
My father was the adored firstborn son of Russian immigrants, Louis and Clara, who gave him the name Moishe, for Moses, the lawgiver, or in his case I joked, Moses, the Messiah. By the time he hit the Ritz Hotel he had Americanized his name. A few years later Morris turned into the more sophisticated Maurice. But everyone called him by the less erudite Moe.
My father’s father Louis escaped from Russia just as he was to be consigned into the Red Army. When government officials arrived at his parent’s house to take him away, his brother answered the door and went in his place. Louis was a candler; he made a living examining eggs over a candle to assure that they were free of disease. He eventually opened a small grocery store in Camden, New Jersey. My father had fond memories of Louis loading neighborhood kids into his truck for forays to area swimming holes. Louis loved animals – German Shepherds in particular – and there was always one or more dogs in the house. Strangely, Morris would grow up to be a cat person.
My father had an older sister, Mary, a younger sister Eva, and a younger brother, Benjamin, the long-standing dinner guest. Clara had become severely depressed after the birth of Benjamin and was hospitalized at some point. I often wondered if visiting his mother in a mental institution when he was young left an indelible mark on Morris, to the point that the experience contributed to his turning his back on my mother when she suffered the same symptoms as Clara. It’s more likely he knew his wife was troubled but didn’t want to deal with it.
I loved my grandmother Clara because she brought me a Hershey chocolate bar every Friday when she came to visit. My mother disliked her because she once put her false teeth in a glass of water on the kitchen table. When Anna was mean to my grandmother, Clara would say, “This is my son’s house which means everything in it is also mine.” On a visit to Clara with my father after she was relegated to a nursing home, I observed her persuade an 85 -year-old resident to give up her seat on the porch so that my father could sit down. I promised Clara that when I was sixteen and got a driver’s license, I would take her for a ride. She died before I could do this.
After the war, my father went into the entertainment business. Pinball machines had been around since the 1930’s, but their great popularity came in 1947 when the Gottlieb company introduced Humpty Dumpty with its advanced ability to flip steel balls around targets and over ramps while players racked up points and free games by keeping the balls from slipping down a drain. We had a couple of pinball machines in the basement of our house, but after playing them a few times, I found the games boring. They were guy toys and as such success with them, to me, required limited intellectual involvement. Soon, out went pinballs and in came liquor as Morris owned and operated a string of taprooms across the city. He ran them himself, staying until closing time every night so that he could be sure that the night’s profits went into his pockets rather than those of a bartender or manager. My brother Harvey recalls the day he visited our father at one of the taprooms and took a bag of potato chips. “You’re eating up the profits,” my father reproached him, and he meant it. As an adult, when I wanted to see my father, I went to his office behind one of the bars in one of the worst neighborhoods in the city. The place was dark, its windows shielded from the knowledge of time outside, the better to keep people in and unaware that their lives were slipping away. I liked to go to my father’s office during the few years that he kept a cat named Pistol there. He made a bed for her in his office and talked lovingly to her. When she died, my father was heartbroken. It’s the only endearing memory I have of him.
The least endearing memory of my father involves money. He had a Sunday morning ritual: He would spread his weeks’ receipts across the kitchen table, making stacks of the twenties, tens, fives and ones. Then he would count and recount each stack, put a rubber band around it, and mark in a book the amount each pile held. He would then take a stack from the table and hand it to my mother; this was her allowance for the coming week. She never got more or less than that set amount, no matter how much he made, which was a significant cause of their nocturnal battles. Year in and year out my mother got her fixed sum, even as my father purchased additional taprooms and his Sunday money grew. Once, after a robbery in one of his taverns, he told my mother that he had to give her less that week; it was her money the thief took. The fight they had after this rivaled that of the battle of Guadalcanal.
I fought my own money wars with my father. When I was about eight, I decided that I too needed an allowance. I enlisted Sherry’s support, and together we asked if we could have five dollars each a week out of the loot spread out on the table. My father agreed to give us each two dollars each, payable every Sunday. The first Sunday of the agreement, he gave us our allowance. I put my share in an elephant bank I kept on my bedroom bureau. I was saving for a Hi-Fi record player. The second Sunday, Sherry and I bounded downstairs as soon as we heard a rubber band pop. “Allowance time,” we announced. My father said he’d leave four dollars on the kitchen table before he left for work on Monday morning. He didn’t. Sherry and I left him a note that night. Please leave our allowance. The money wasn’t there on Tuesday. Another note was written: We need our allowance today. By Wednesday we were threatening him. LEAVE OUR ALLOWANCE – OR ELSE. On Thursday the money was waiting. When Sunday rolled around, we were in the kitchen again, our hands out. My father was indignant. Hadn’t he just given us our allowance? How could we have spent it already? By this method, my father managed to cheat his little girls out of two dollars every other week. In 1979, I went to my father’s office and asked him for money to pay for the wedding I wanted. It was a considerable sum and at first, he said he couldn’t afford it. I threatened to bring my mother’s sisters to the bar the next afternoon and have him explain himself to them. “You’re my father and you owe me this,” I said. He put me in his car, drove to a nearby Corn Exchange National Bank, opened his safe deposit box, and handed me stacks of money. The bills had the signature of Eisenhower’s treasury secretary on them. If my mother had known about this stash she would have killed him.
I was never able to buy the record player. Ever so often, after I had built up a cache of about ten dollars, my mother, thinking I was asleep, would sneak into my room in the middle of the night, unscrew the bottom of my elephant bank and help herself to a few bucks of the money. I never mentioned the corruption to my mother, but I told Uncle Ben about it. He bought me a second-hand Hi-Fi he found in a junk store, a sorry piece of equipment with a red plastic top. I hated the thing and vowed never in my life to wear or use anything that wasn’t brand new. I didn’t change my mind until I developed a passion for old English pine but of course, anything over 150 years old doesn’t count as used.
Looking back, the pattern of our family life amazes me: My father left home at 9 AM and always came home at 6 PM for dinner, Monday through Saturday. He took a nap in the living room after dinner and went back to work at about 9 PM. My mother cooked every night: roast chicken, brisket, stuffed cabbage, calves liver (which we all hated). She made soup – chicken noodle, tomato, and cabbage borscht. Sometimes there was a chocolate cake for dessert. Sherry and I were never asked to help with the cooking, and I don’t recall ever clearing the table or washing the dishes. Every Sunday morning Anna put out a spread of lox and bagels, smoked fish, knishes and other Jewish delicacies. During these meals Anna rarely spoke to my father – silence was her great weapon in her war against her husband and children. Make believe they don’t exist and maybe they won’t. My parents would send messages to each other through Sherry or me. “Tell your father to pass the salt.” My father would point to a bowl of string beans sitting next to my mother’s plate. “Sherry, get those for me.”
Anna’s silences often lasted for days and sometimes weeks. She’d sit in her bedroom alone, in the dark, while Harvey, Sherry and I fended for ourselves. I became expert at gauging Anna’s mood the second I walked into the house after school and prepared myself mentally for what was to come. I think my sharpened antenna eventually made me a good psychologist.
While I can’t remember the downstairs of the Ellsworth Street house, I vividly remember my bedroom. It was at the back of the second floor, next to Uncle Ben’s room., near the staircase to the kitchen. Until Harvey left for college, I shared it with Sherry. The wallpaper in the room was pink, with roses on it, and the carpet was brown. The bureau and night table were off-white with gold trim. It is in this room that Sherry and I spent hours imitating the westerns we saw on television. We’d turn back the mattresses on our twin beds and ride our stagecoaches from town to town. We’d yell out “giggy-up” to our imaginary horses, laugh, and have a grand time. Most often we did this in the summer, in the early evening, after my mother forced us to go to bed while it was still light out and the neighborhood kids were playing outside in the driveway just beneath our bedroom window. Anna wanted us out of the way so that she could sit alone in the living room watching television and clicking her knitting needles, her resentment toward her husband and children growing daily. This was not the life she had bargained for, this sitting at home day and night, particularly on weekends, stuck with three brats, and relying on relatives and friends to take her to weddings, birthday parties, and funerals. The endless aloneness ate away at her even though all the companionship and love she could ever have wanted dwelled upstairs in her own house, albeit retreated as far away as possible from her abusive tongue and brutal punishments.
Sherry and I tried to keep ourselves and our horses quiet when we played stagecoach, but invariably Anna would hear us giggling. She’d yell up for us to stop carrying on, which compelled me to imitate her in a foreign accent, which sent Sherry into gales of laughter. We’d hear my mother as she headed to her closet for a thick belt, her weapon of choice. Sherry sometimes got prepared for the onslaught by wearing two pairs of panties, occasionally with a hardback book in the back to protect her flank. I took my beatings like Wyatt Earp, straight up. Afterward, I’d fantasize about killing my mother. But the thought of leaving Jingles behind when I was carted off to jail deterred me.
Once, when my mother had gotten Sherry down on the bed and was whipping her on her back and buttocks with the belt, I said, “Pick on someone your own size.” My mother turned to me and began swinging wildly. One blow hit the side of my face and other my hand as I tried to block the blows. The belt buckle lassoed my finger and bent it back until it broke. I went to school the next day with a black eye and my hand bandaged. “Can you believe I fell down the kitchen steps?” I told my friends. During one of the beatings, I gave my mother the Nazi salute. “Heil Hitler!” She went wild with rage. Later that night I showed my father my bruises, which covered my arms and stomach. “If you weren’t so ornery this wouldn’t have happened,” he said.
Laughter wasn’t the only thing the triggered Anna’s rage. Sherry and I both developed nervous, obsessive habits that my mother found intolerable. “I’m going to cut off your fingers,” she’d yell at Sherry, who had taken to sucking her two middle fingers well past the baby stage of life. “One of these days I’m going to chop off all your hair,” she’d warn my sister, in response to Sherry’s endless twilling of a lock of her dark curls. I developed a compelling need, to my mother’s disgust, to rub the knuckle side of my fingers on the edge of my sheet, the silky feel suggestive of what I would have experienced had my mother held me against her skin when I was an infant. Jingles’ soft ears gave me that same kind of comfort, leading me to lore the dog onto my bed whenever possible so that I could rub them against my cheek.
Jingles was considered Harvey’s dog, because that’s the way it was in the Levin household. Harvey first and “the kids” – Sherry and me- afterthoughts. When the family went to the movies, Harvey chose the film and the kids tagged along. Harvey could change the channel on the television if Sherry and I were watching it and he wanted to view something different, take food off our plates if he was hungry, and pummel us with his fists if he was annoyed with something we did or said. He was my mother’s consort while Morris worked his life away at the taprooms. As such, Harvey was second on my assassination list. I’d lay in bed at night and fantasize about sneaking into his room while he slept and smothering him with a pillow. Wisely, I realized he could overtake me with his strength.
There was one place Harvey could go that was forbidden to Sherry and me: It was the Fourth of July fireworks celebration. This was Harvey’s day – his birthday. On Independence Day he and my mother went off to see the holiday display, leaving Sherry and me at home. It was their day together, the day of the year my mother loved most, and the day of the year she died. As a young child, I dreamed about going to see fireworks. I imagined them to be so glorious that only a special person like my brother was worthy of viewing them. When at last a friend’s parents took me to see a fireworks display, I was shockingly disappointed. After about ten minutes of looking up at the skies and watching the colorful comets of red, yellow and pink rain down, I felt the same way about fireworks as I had about pinball machines – they bored me. This was my first experience of having a fantasy turn into a dud when realized. It certainly wouldn’t be the last.
Harvey had first dibs on walking Jingles and playing with her. When he wasn’t home, I had my chance to cuddle with her and pretend that she and I lived alone together in a safe and happy place. Jingles would crawl under my bed covers to sleep, her face touching my toes. I never could figure out how she was able to breathe way down there but she seemed to be comfy. I was so in love with the dog that I’d race home from school in order to snuggle with her before Harvey got there and snatched her away from me. When Harvey wasn’t around I was allowed to take Jingles for walks. At these times I’d grab her leash and race out of the house, fearful that my brother would unexpectedly appear and rob me of my time with the dog. One day he did come home early and I greeted him with a sarcastic, “The prince is home.” He immediately answered, “How come you demoted me?”
While only three years older than me, Harvey had been consigned the role of surrogate parent by my mother. He had to see that Sherry and I got to and from school. He was our babysitter on the nights my mother went out to play cards with her girlfriends. “Be sure the kids get to bed on time,” my mother would instruct him before leaving the house.
Sherry and I resisted Harvey’s parenting efforts.
“Get the hell in that bed,” he would yell. My mother’s instructions laying heavy upon him, Harvey turned to the only weapon he had to make his sisters follow his will – his fists. Sherry would give in after only one blow to her arm or back.
“OK, I’m going,” she’d yell as she raced for the stairs to the second floor of the house.
I was stubborn. And foolish. “You’re not my boss,” I’d say as I ran around the dining room table, pulling chairs out behind me so that Harvey would trip and fall as he pursued me. Harvey would eventually catch me, we’d struggle, and he’d punch the hell out of me while dragging me up to my bedroom. The next day and for weeks after, I’d have to wear a long sleeve blouse to school, even if it was 90 degrees outside. My mother didn’t want anyone to see how swollen and black and blue my arms were. My father wasn’t happy about the injuries. “Why can’t you just do what he wants?” he said. Once, when Uncle Ben saw my bruises he picked up the heavy astray he was using and handed it to me. “Next time he comes after you, throw this at his head.”
When we were well into our forties, after being semi-estranged for most of our adult life – we weren’t friends and we weren’t enemies, just people who knew one another – Harvey took me out to dinner. When the subject of our childhood came up he explained his side of the story.
“What do you think it was like for me to have to be responsible for two younger sisters?” he asked. “I had to get you two home from school at noon, see that you had lunch, and get you back to school. After school, I had to take you with me when I went to play ball with my friends. By twelve- years- old, I was your babysitter when mother went out. I couldn’t make you follow my orders and I knew if things didn’t go as she wanted, mother would take her anger out on me and make my life miserable.”
Sitting across the table from my brother, I remembered every punch I’d ever taken from him. My mind turned to On the Waterfront and Marlon Brando. It was you, Charley. You was my brother. You should have looked out for me…
“I hit you kids because I didn’t know what else to do?” my brother, alias Rod Steiger, said.
I knew he had a point but I was unforgiving. It was you, Charley, I thought. You had a duty to protect your sisters. It’s the rules; an obligation written in the genes. Apes in the jungle know this; bears in the forest know this; lake-bound swans know this. What internal malfunction had caused you to ignore this basic life principle? You should have stood in front of Sherry and me and taken the beatings. You should have been the man in the family when the man who was supposed to take care of his children abdicated his responsibilities.
As a psychologist, I know that violence begets violence in a family. Every introductory psychology student knows the Bobo study whereby adults hit a blow-up doll and then leave it with a group of young children, who go on to beat the doll also. You have to learn to love and there was no way Harvey, Sherry, and I were going to model this from the people who raised us. It would have made sense to forgive Harvey knowing this, but there is another world out there, a nonviolent, caring world if one looked for it, which he hadn’t done. I had read Little Woman and knew how loyal and loving siblings could be despite conflicts and sharp differences in personality. The close relationship between the two oldest Bennet sisters in Pride and Prejudice informed me. Elizabeth says to her sister Jane, “…I feel as if I had never done you justice, or loved you as you deserve.” These should have been Harvey’s words to me.
At some point in our lives, we reached a separate peace, each looking at the past from our own perspective, he calling our childhood the nightmare years but never owned up to his abandonment of his sisters when he left for college, knowing well that he was leaving us in hell. What he didn’t know was how much worse it would get after he was gone and my mother was more alone than ever.
My father ignored the problems in the family, coming and going as if we were the Ozzie and Harriet clan. During dinner, he’d ask us about school or discuss a news event as if my mother wasn’t there and missed (ignored really) her steady decline into madness. I don’t recall him ever acknowledging the effort that goes into shopping for food, cooking, and cleaning up every day. I did it a few times in my life and found the effort grueling. “Why do you think they invented restaurants?” was my response when friends commented on my reluctance to boil water for spaghetti. Luckily, I married a man who loved to cook and had a kid who modeled his father.
On Sunday, my father’s day off, we piled into the family car and headed to Turin Grotto, an Italian restaurant on North 13th Street. Harvey got his own meal but Sherry and I had to share one. We were never allowed to order an appetizer but we did get spumoni for dessert. Sometimes, after dinner, we’d cross the Delaware River Bridge into New Jersey to go to the Stanley Theater a 2,200-seat Italian palace, where we saw Dean Martin and Jerry Lewis, Blackstone, the Magician, and many of the other star performers of the day. What I remember most about these excursions was my tendency to get carsick. Invariably by the time my father got halfway across the bridge I had to throw up. My father would pull the car over wherever possible; I’d get out and heave my Italian dinner onto the highway. Looking back, I think my stomach upset had more to do with the stress of being trapped in a car with my family than the inner ear problem my disorder was blamed on.
A light sleeper, I’d hear my father come home from work about 2 AM. On nights when my mother wasn’t waiting to ambush him in the kitchen with complaints about her miserable life and worthless kids, he’d climb the backstairs, thumping loudly. He’d come into my room. “Are you up, Lin?” he’d ask, turning on the overhead light.
“I wasn’t, until an elephant stomped up the stairs.”
He’d coax me to come down and have milk and cake with him, and I’d wearily get out of bed and follow him.
These nocturnal encounters made me feel needed by my father, and loved, feelings neither Harvey nor Sherry experienced. Years later, when I had a child, I realized how insane it was to wake a little girl in the middle of the night when she had to be up for school in a few hours. I know now that it wasn’t about his love for me, rather, it was his self-serving narcissism, his loneliness, and his need for his oldest daughter to make things right for him at home. Once, watching him enjoy milk and cookies with my toddler son, I reminded him of the nights we shared a pre-dawn snack. “You must have been lonely to wake me in the middle of the night,” I said.
“I was checking to see if you were alive,” he answered.
When my father was in his seventies, we met for lunch at Tavern on Green in Philadelphia, a small bar near the college where I was teaching. We both ordered hamburgers, and while we waited for our meals, he talked about his school days. My father spoke with pride at having attended Central High in Philadelphia, an elite boys school comparable to what college is today. From Central, graduates went straight to law school or medical school. He was into his senior year when his father died, and he had to drop out of school to support his siblings and mother. “I wanted to be a lawyer,” he said, “but I had to sacrifice that dream to keep my family alive. It was a bitter blow.” He went on to say that for all his effort – working long hours at menial jobs to buy a home for his family -in the end, he was alone. “Uncle Ben died young, Aunt Mary died young, Eva moved to California and I rarely heard from her. What do I have to show for my sacrifice?”
“You were a good son and a good brother,” I said. “That’s not a little thing.”
“I gave everything I had to them.”
“Is that why you had so little to give us? Is that why you were such a bad father?” It was a question I needed to ask, and one I needed an answer to. As a psychology professor and family therapist at the time, I was particularly interested in what happens in families where there are imbalances between what parents want from children and what they are willing to give. I had recently given a lecture in my abnormal psychology class about the give and take in families, how each member sees the ledger of love and care and encouragement from his or her point of view. I had focused on the effect of imbalances that come from hidden loyalties, real or perceived injustices, destructive entitlement, scapegoating, and parentification of a particular child. I had the class do genograms, tri-generational maps that show the legacy of alcoholism or child abuse or abandonment as well as physical and mental illness. I had handed out a diagram of the family of baseball legend Mickey Mantle, who was the heir to a long history of cancer and alcoholism. “Without psychiatric help, he was pretty much doomed by his family legacy,” I told the class. “Sadly, he didn’t come from the kind of family that would even acknowledge needing help.”
We were another family who didn’t seek or want help.
“I took care of all of them,” my father reiterated. “I took Uncle Ben into our house despite mother’s objections.”
The argument that he was “given out” by his obligations to his first family was feeble and unpersuasive. “What’s that have to do with your withholding from your family, you not being there for us?”
“I thought my children would do for me what I did for my family,” my father said.
I thought back to a discussion I had had with my father when I was in my twenties and dating a doctor who proposed marriage. My father encouraged me to say yes.
“He’s a nice guy,” I said, “but I don’t love him, and I don’t want to get married. I have other plans.”
“Your life will be easy,” my father said. “He’ll grow on you.”
“Like a fungus?” I asked.
“You’ll get me a place in Florida,” he said. It sounded more like an expectation than a desire.
He talked about his regrets. “I should never have put you out,” he said, referring to a particularly ugly incident in our past when he barred me from his house.
“Dad, it was forty years ago. It doesn’t matter anymore.” It did matter, but I saw no point in rehashing the incident.
“I made a mistake,” he said. “I did it for mother, to avoid more turmoil at home.”
“That was your pattern. You never took a stand.”
“I tried,” he said.
“You were never home,” I pointed out. “You didn’t protect us.”
“Staying with your mother was your protection,” he said.
“You could have gotten a divorce.”
“I was always afraid of coming home and finding all of you dead, mother too,” my father said.
My mother killing herself and the rest of us was a family theme. He repeatedly told the story of the night he came home from work and the oven was on and carbon monoxide permeated the house. “If I had been a half hour later,” he marveled, “you would all have been gone.” It was one of his implausible tales. “Another time, in the middle of a blizzard, you, Harvey and Sherry were locked outside, sitting in the snow in your pajamas at 2 AM, along with Jingles.” I vaguely remember the snow storm incident, but this may be because he told me about it so many times. “It was lucky I came home when I did, or the three of you would have frozen to death.” He said he sometimes read stories in the paper about wives murdering their entire families to get revenge on their husbands and he had no doubt Anna might do this. “How many times did mother overdose on sleeping pills,” my father asked. “Didn’t you and Harvey have to walk her around for hours?”
“If you were so concerned why didn’t you get us the hell out of there?” I asked, nibbling on a piece of cake and thinking back to our predawn snacks together.
“Where was I going to take you?”
“So you think we should appreciate you leaving us in the house with a lunatic?” I said.
The fact that the children my father believed he saved from extermination were not grateful to him was one of the greatest disappointments in his life.
“You wanted your children to make up to you for what you lost and what you think you gave,” I finally said, feeling sorry for him despite myself.
“Why shouldn’t they?” my father answered.
“It doesn’t work that way, Dad. I’m sorry for you, I am, but parents are supposed to take care of their kids, love them, nurture them, and protect them, not the other way around. We couldn’t make up for what you didn’t get in your own life. We couldn’t turn those disappointments around. It was too much to ask. Unfortunately, you married the wrong woman, and that made it worse for you.” I added, “And much worse for us.”
“You’ll understand more when you have your own child,” my father informed me.
Eventually, I got my own child, and I understood less. In hindsight, I don’t think my mother’s sleeping pill overdoses were serious efforts to do away with herself, and if she did put the oven on it was probably five minutes before my father came home from work. These feeble gestures were attempts to get my father’s attention, which they did. But not in the way Anna hoped. Morris would argue with her, even more, when she was in a downward cycle. And he’d stay at work longer.
As we left the restaurant and I headed towards the college, my father said, “Linda, I love you so much it hurts my heart.”
“A lot of good it did me,” I said.
In July of 1956, when I was fourteen, I took Jingles for an unusually long walk before heading to a friend’s house to hang out. I was elated because Harvey was away at camp for two weeks and I had the dog to myself. Jingles was in a curious mood, and she pulled me from tree to tree around the neighborhood, sniffing for the perfect mate to sooth her primal urges. The dog was stubborn this particular morning; after forty minutes of walking, I picked her up and carried her home so that I could get on with my day. I kissed the dog goodbye and went off to play. I didn’t come home until almost dinnertime. The first thing I saw when I walked into the house was a dog leash, attached to a collar, lying on a porch chair. My mother came into the porch. “Why isn’t Jingles wearing her collar?” I asked before I realized that the dog hadn’t come running to me as she always did when I came home.
“She died,” my mother said, barely looking at me. My mother burst out crying. “What am I going to tell Harvey when he gets home from camp?” she said.
I couldn’t speak. I stood there staring at my mother, my eyes unfocused. “Harvey is going to be devastated,” she said.
I ran out of the house, screaming hysterically. I was like a mad child running up and down the street frenetically, not knowing what to do or where to turn. I didn’t stop wailing until I saw a 16 -year- old neighbor, Bob, sitting on his front step, also crying. His looked at me and said, “My dog is dead. He was poisoned.” It turns out that just about every dog on the block was dead that day, the victims of an arsenic attack. The killer had placed pieces of poisoned meat on the sidewalk in front of targeted homes. Jingles became ill soon after I brought her home from her walk. My mother called my father at work and he came home and took the dog to the vet. It was hopeless, my mother later told me. Jingles died soon after they arrived at the hospital.
When I got home after my neighborhood rant, I asked my mother what she did with Jingles’ body. “We had her buried in a pet cemetery,” she said.
“Where is it?” I demanded to know.
“In Southwest Philadelphia, near the veterinarian’s office.”
“It is a cemetery just for dogs?” I wanted to know.
“Yes,” my mother said. “It’s a special place for dogs.”
The next day I took a trolley to Southwest Philadelphia. I asked the driver to let me off at the dog cemetery. He said he didn’t know of such a place. I sat on the trolley for hours, as it made its rounds and started over again. I sat on one side going south and the other going north, time after time, peering out the window hoping to spot the special place where my dog now rested. It was nighttime when I arrived home. My mother didn’t ask where I had been and I didn’t tell her.
Two years later, when I got a driver’s license, I headed back to Southwest Philadelphia in my father’s car, again on the hunt for my dog’s grave. It wasn’t until that failed journey that I realized my mother had lied. There was no dog cemetery in that area, and my dog was not buried anywhere. She was simply gone, and I was never going to find her again.
I cried every day for most of the summer after Jingles died. Upon hearing me sobbing in my bed one night, my father came into my room. He stood in the doorway. I wanted him to come to me and take me in his arms so I could tell him how badly I was feeling. “You have to get over this, Linda,” he said before turning and walking away.
I never did. Years later, well into my forties, when I told a therapist the story of Jingles and my search for her after she was gone, I sobbed as I had as a heartbroken teenager.
“Linda, did you kill your dog?” she asked, handing me a tissue.
“I was walking her when she ate the meat,” I said. It was at that moment that I realized my life since the day of Jingles death had been built upon atonement for the sin of not paying attention. I had tried to redeem myself by taking in every stray that had crossed my path. My young adult years had consisted of hurrying home, and dog hair, and poop. I had given up Paris for my foundlings, and pedicures, and one cold winter when one of them needed medical care, a coat. If just for a moment, someone had sat me down on that tragic day and said, “Linda, this was not your fault,” I might have been saved so much misery. As it turned out, I saved a lot of dogs so much suffering. It’s a trade-off I can live with.
After that summer of Jingle’s death, the street pretty much stayed dogless. Life went on for the family and the neighbors, but not in the same way for me. I became increasingly silent. I took to ruminating and brooding. I sat on a beach chair on the front landing for most of that miserable summer, obsessing about killing the killer of my dog. Everyone in the neighborhood assumed it was the Armenian cat lady. But nobody confronted her. The SPCA posted notices advertising a reward for information leading to the arrest of the dog murderer, but no one ever came up with a clue. I wanted to sneak into the Armenian lady’s house in the middle of the night and shoot her with the gun I knew my father kept hidden under his bed, in the springs of his lower mattress. In hindsight, I wonder what miracle kept me from taking that weapon and destroying all of my enemies in one fell swoop. I could be rid of my mother, my brother, and the cat lady in short order. I’d be free, and no longer in harm’s way from any of them. I couldn’t save Jingles, I reasoned, but maybe I could save myself.
I imagined the trial after these three killings and thought out in detail my testimony on the stand. I’d tell the jury what it feels like to be a human punching bag. I tell them of the daily verbal humiliations from my mother. I’d show them a picture of Jingles and explain what had happened to her. They would acquit me of murder after only a half an hour of deliberation.
By the end of the summer, I hadn’t shot anyone. Only Jingles was gone. With her went the last vestiges of my childhood, what little there had been of it. I had reached puberty and changes would have come anyway, but with the death of the dog, I leaped straight into adulthood, never stopping to become an adolescent on the search for an identity, a pack of friends, and a first flirtatious love.
I began to dissociate emotionally from the goings on in the Levin family and the rest of the world. I’d lay in my bed at night listening to sad songs on that loathsome Hi-Fi. I’d write poems. Some of them were epics, running page after page. I wrote an essay on why I refused to study math, citing my troubled mind. Before the poisoning, I believed in God, as all children are taught to do (I now consider this a form of psychological abuse) and thanked my imaginary master every night before I went to bed “for all the wonderful things you’ve done for me.” Even in the darkness of the Levin household, I thought myself lucky. I felt blessed to be female, smart, good-looking, and Jewish. Every time I saw photos of Russian women like my grandmother standing in line to buy food, I felt fortunate to live in the United States.
Before Jingles died I liked making deals with my personal God. I’d sit on my bed and like Jacob in the Old Testament, wrestle with him. “If you make me pretty, God, I’ll go to synagogue on the High Holidays.” When I thought I was shaping up, I’d increase the ante. “I appreciate you making me pretty, God, but how about very pretty. Lots of girls are pretty. I want to stand out from them.” I became very pretty. And greedy. “Thanks a lot, God, for making me very pretty,” my narcissistic, preadolescent self prayed. “But I want to be gorgeous, drop-dead gorgeous. I’ll do great things in life if you make me gorgeous.” At this point, God put his foot down.
Very pretty served me very well growing up. Teachers liked me, neighbors liked me, my father and Uncle Ben loved me, and soon enough boys began trailing me around. I remember being in a restaurant with my father when I was about fourteen. We were eating bacon and eggs. A stranger walked up to my father and said, “She is a beautiful child.” My father proudly said, “She looks like my mother,” thus revealing the secret of his lifelong attachment to me. I don’t think I look much like Clara except for her body type; she was short and round and had perfectly smooth, fair skin until her death at 73. In middle age, I’d spread out like she had, a gift of genetics, anguish, and a lack of discipline. I think I favor the Silversteins, my mother’s side, in looks and manner. They were a hard bunch, smart and creative, all with a jaded view of the world tempered by a self-deprecating, sarcastic sense of humor. They were a congenial bunch who liked to have a good time. As a kid, I loved to go to my aunts’ houses where I could play with some of my forty-three first cousins.
My divorce from God was extreme. “We’re through,” I cried a few nights after Jingles’ murder. “I will never believe in you or speak to you again.” And I haven’t. My secret savior had abandoned me. I had expected God to be Doc Holliday, faithful and loyal to the only friend he ever had. But he had allowed the worst possible thing in the world to happen to me. He had let my dog die. He had betrayed me. I would have to learn to count on myself only in life. I would have to chart my course alone through the miseries and sorrows of the world. My mother wasn’t going to be there for me, nor would my father. My siblings were holding on for dear life themselves and had no resources available to share. I walked into adolescence with a resolve. You will make it, Linda, no matter what it takes. You will put this behind you and trudge on. What I didn’t know then is that Jingles was shadowing every step I took, Jingles and all that was buried with her in that nonexistent dog cemetery in Southwest Philadelphia.