The black figure has always been a subject of entertainment in popular culture, as well as an image to sell things. In some ways, that’s how people relate to us—because they’ve seen us on television.
In the years before flash photography, my mother’s mother and father were obligated to pose outdoors, but they rarely ventured far from their house. In photographs of them some force seems to be checking their motion, as though, otherwise, they were liable to slip beyond the concrete arc of their front stoop and come unanchored. Behind them the mounting bricks of their bungalow frame every image. My grandmother and my grandfather always stand, creating a formal portrait: she in a plain cotton dress and he in a white shirt, freshly pressed pants and polished shoes. They leave a self-conscious measure of inches between them. Even in their own yard they never take a casual seat on the lawn chairs or the back steps. They offer up a justifying armload of grandchildren, recording a special event rather than simply marking their own contentment.
How different their children are! Nothing holds them back in their pictures, nothing seeks explanation. Nothing is out of bounds for them. They love in public, my mother and my uncles and my aunts, rolling with their sweethearts on the grass, in yards and in city parks and on the sand along the Lake Michigan shore. The American sun shines as close as their own bodies. Wherever they go they dispense with shirts, with hats, with long pants. They hang on one another’s shoulders; they tangle in each other’s hair. Bare backs lean, sweaty and shameless, against bare backs. Their grins flirt with the camera; they know that the world brought to life by heat and light is pledged, whole, to them.
My grandmother felt no regret for what she had left behind in Poland or, it seemed, for memory. So strange to me—child of her child, a world away—she felt no longing for remembering’s occasion to be together, and to tell. When I tried to coax her into reminiscing during the last year of her life she had only this to say: “Every Easter the nuns would come to spit on us.”
My grandmother’s lonely past set her forever apart from her children and grandchildren. The youngest of eight, she was handed from relative to relative for more than ten years after her mother died in childbirth. As a teenager she was sent to America, entrusted to an uncle with a rag trade job in New York and then betrothed to a Chicago cigar maker. Alone in widowhood more than half a century later she would once again be passed among a reluctant set of relatives—this time her own children.
But those children! They married, and honeymooned on skis, careening fearlessly down mountains of snow. They rented cabins on northern lakes, where pine log fires left a resinous, muscular scent in the bedclothes. The bang of screen doors and the grinding crescendo of outboard motors followed every meal, as they spilled onto swaying aluminum docks that bounced and rang under their running feet. Wives and husbands and young children, more every year—they all became swimmers, stripped down to the barest of fabric, willingly soaked, exposed.
Around their suburban homes dusk wrapped itself at the flannel close of summer evenings: warm, gray, dense, pulsing softly with fireflies. They cooked in the open, in petroleum bursts of lighter fluid that settled into the glowing pyramid of coals; later in the tired dark someone would spill a bucket of water into the grill, and a finale of loud steam would rise from the live ashes. Indoors, paper plates were stacked on the kitchen counter, loaded with charred meat pooled in watermelon and spit-out seeds—the leavings of plenty.
My mother’s mother passed the afternoon and the day’s slow finish on her children’s back porches, her nylon stockings rolled down in the heat around her thick ankles, beside a pile of mending collected by daughters and daughters-in-law anxious to make her feel useful. American noise beat all around my grandmother—the raw screams of her grandchildren, the straining whines of an automobile squeezing into the last parking spot on the block; a neighbor’s surging lawn mower, a barking dog, an impatient mother calling children to bed—but she never looked up from her sewing.
My grandmother imagined dance—her daughter would be a ballerina—and she imagined light and sound, her son on stage, spotlighted, making beautiful music. But in the end she would break my young uncle’s violin over his head because of the sounds it made: sounds without promise. And, in the end, she would curse my cousins for marrying strangers, goyim to her no matter what tricks of word or ritual they managed to call up. This would forever remain for my grandmother a destination to which necessity rather than hope had driven her—where even a brick house of her own and a piano, and enough to eat, and scores of college graduations couldn’t vanquish her aloneness. My grandmother never let down her guard against America, never was not a stranger here herself. Even as her appetite for this place’s promises continued to run, like a thin, secret aquifer, beneath the conceded surface of the present, my mother’s mother balked at what her children dared to expect: to come in close to the unruly, whirring business of life here, and to take hold of it and claim it as their own.
* * *
For my sixth birthday, the year we moved from our city apartment, I chose a little red tractor with pedals instead of a bicycle. My parents were on the trail of transformation and I was with them, in motion, pitching in, counting on a clear path.
The entire world seemed to lie molten around us, amenable to our presence, inviting us to leave our mark. Gleaming tools—pronged trowels, hoes, rakes—opened the earth in our yard, uprooted weeds, collecting fallen leaves and depositing them in a pile near the garage, where they yielded luxurious mulch. My parents were intoxicated by seed catalogs, by their lavish foretelling of possibility. Roses—just pink roses!—came in countless varieties. Summer brought us close to excess: the lilies of the valley crowding the ground, loaded with odor; the soft, shallow trail of sticky clippings that accumulated behind my mother when she mowed the grass; the gigantic peonies teetering at the tips of stalks, crawling with greedy ants. In the fall, death had its own rich, sweet fragrance. Chunky smoke clouded the crystal air as bonfires popped and hissed all weekend long in the middle of our street.
My mother sowed plants throughout the lawn, calculating what it took to keep everything alive. One of her sprinklers cast a wide, unhurrying arc, leaving a margin of sidewalk that pedestrians passed at an anxious angle, pressing against an invisible wall; two others spun at the farthest corners of our property, drenching the final inches of green that she had measured. The seasons moved, it seemed, to the rhythm of growing and blooming that my own mother set. During our first autumn in the house she sank bulbs at the yellowing border between the grass and her rock garden; in the spring she surrounded the house with a velvety layer of ground cover. In winter she kept a shovel on the front steps, and she drove a straight, certain path through every snowfall, clearing our way to the curb. Through the deepest white, cold and wet, we made our daily way, in her wake, to the world.
On trips away from home, my mother navigated. We coasted the lakeshore, the boundary between our newly spacious destiny and the destiny of our grandparents on their cramped block at the far end of the city. Wherever we went with them, my grandmother and grandfather folded themselves into the backseat of our car without a word. My father drove. Next to him in the front my mother twisted to check her lipstick in the rearview mirror and then plotted our way, unfolding and refolding the flopping pages of road maps, routing and rerouting alternatives to the dotted lines that indicated highways still under construction when Rand McNally went to press.
Around our house, though, empty lots left: ominous gaps that evoked peril as much as genesis. We were forbidden to play in the deep craters dug in preparation for new homes, where splintery planks were strewn, studded with filthy nails. Still, in the long, lazy hours of the late afternoon, the neighborhood kids drifted in bunches onto construction sites after the workers had left for the day. Silently each of us would drop, scraping against the rough cement slabs of the foundation until our sneakers sank into mounds of excavated soil. We would fan out and play in the faltering light, spooking one another, throwing our voices around corners, calling out and fleeing, skidding in a chalky barrage of dust and gravel. On the bare concrete walls we imagined the outlines of rooms in which families as yet unknown to us—capable of anything—would soon make lives in our midst.
At night I was alone in the dark, for the first time without my sister, in my own bedroom. I could not keep from stoking the space around me with fear. I sweated under the covers, ashamed of the wiry surge of terror building in my throat. I sensed the lush stands of aged elms and lindens that lined our long block reaching toward one another to blot out the moonlight, I could feel blackness tightening around me. I knew I would bolt before the night lifted, across the lightless hall to my parents. Below the landing where I crept in my pajamas, steps dropped off into nothingness. I knew that the stuff of my nightmares lay in wait in the shadows where the staircase turned, where the approach of Nazis and savage birds of prey would be muffled by the pile carpeting. And I knew that my mother and my father would have no patience with me when I burst one more time through their shut door, in tears, and fell on them in their bed.
The pounding pulse of the universe seemed too close, all around me, during those long nights. The familiar details of my room—the whistling stir of the hamster’s exercise wheel, the reek of urine-soaked cedar shavings, the smooth perfection of the new bookshelf that my father and I had lovingly sanded together—evaporated as I returned, helplessly, to the same waking nightmare. Behind my clenched eyelids, two shadows expanded at cartoon speed—collided—instantly shrank to a single, concentrated dot—and, in the next split second, vanished. Light and darkness, sperm and egg: each time, blunt forces gathered, found one another, and took unexpected forms, renewing my shivering uncertainty. With just the slightest jiggle the center of the world as I knew it could be emptied. I could live in a different house, with a different family and a different name; I would have different parents. Many mornings I came down to the basement, shaky and doubtful, and confronted my mother at the ironing board. “I will stay with you, whoever you are,” I would promise, as her laughter turned to bewilderment, “but you have to take off the mask and tell me what you’ve done with my father and mother.”
One beach day, when the sun had exhausted us, my sister and I returned home to find the back door ajar. At once I could feel suspicion rise in me, like acid, again—my fearsome knowledge of the presence of strangers. Still in my sand-stuck bathing suit, I made a series of lone forays into the house, collecting every sharp object that might be used against us: steak knives, carving knives, barbecue skewers. In the climbing heat I remembered the fireplace equipment, the viciously pronged log iron and the heavy shovel, meant for ashes but in the wrong hands, potentially, a weapon. And the corncob holders, green and yellow plastic knobs that I dumped onto the clatter of metal piled in the backyard.
By the time my mother backed into the garage and began unloading groceries, my work was complete. It would take her weeks to recover what I had buried: the invisible blades hunched in the dirt around her ant-encrusted peonies, around her tulips, in the matted, low lilies of the valley.
* * *
My parents brought home to their children miraculous cartons, the speeding new world broken down into comprehensible, compliant components. Our family built whole machines out of the scrambled fragments that we unloaded from kits in cardboard boxes: cockpit and chassis in functioning detail, down to the handpainted headlights and the fiery decals that we laid on, last, along the wing of a World War II fighter jet or the hood of a Corvette. Out of a void of illegible shapes and colorlessness we called forth art, made from paint-by-number sets and packets of Venus Paradise pencils. A richness of new products lined the supermarket aisles: freeze-dried soups; frozen TV dinners, miracles of timesaving miracles; gimmicky cereals. In a cellophane envelope hidden like a charm in the Cocoa Krispies I was rewarded with the pieces of an intricate rickshaw that I put together all by myself and ran for weeks on a string line along the kitchen table.
For my 12th birthday my father gave me the boxed Visible Woman. I sorted her reproductive system into the palm of my hand, turning the uterus and the ovaries against one another like marbles. Before she could be brought to life, over 200 separate anatomical parts had to be detached, one by one, from plastic stalks. Around the dully colored core of spine and brain I eased into place the two kidneys, capped by adrenal glands. And the byzantine skeletal system: the ribs winding around the lungs; the stream of bones narrowing from the pelvis to the feet; the delicate strings of wrist and finger links suspended from each arm. I had to jam the heart, with its awkward aorta, into the crowded chest cavity, just above the bulging stomach. When I snapped the clear windshield of skin over the whole Woman her breasts and hips swelled transparently on the display stand, suddenly betraying her nakedness.
My mother ordered from Kimberly Clark a large, plain carton supplied with a cheerfully illustrated pamphlet and an assortment of Kotex sanitary napkins, arranged in ascending order of absorbency. But late one night, at a slumber party, Georgeanne Moore revealed that once a month each of us would be having a baby that would pop on its way down, and I could hardly imagine what to do with my own apprehensive, unready body. I anxiously picked open the hospital-white bundles and uncurled them and laid them out, like fresh doll mattresses, on my bed. The rough stuffing seemed as flimsy as my mother’s promise: Because you know, you will never have to be ashamed, as we were.
Below the surface of the visible, knowledge remained to me, like the body, mysterious, clandestine, full with emotion at once tangible and inexplicable. I never revealed to my parents the days I passed in the school nurse’s office, deep in the basement below my fourth grade classroom. For me alone Miss Padovic would crack a thermometer on her desk to free the mercury, and I would chase the escaping silver as it shivered into the channels between floor tiles or lurched out her office door. Sometimes Miss Padovic and I would dismantle the contents of her lunch. I had never seen or touched a whole green pepper before she brought one out of her paper sack, and I remember the jolt I felt when she first bit into it, like an apple, and her soft laugh when she saw my startled look. Bent close over the deep green globes, the two of us would trace the surface of each pepper with our fingers, following the crevices and curves as they dipped and rose. We would pierce the tight skin with the kitchen knife that Miss Padovic kept next to the erasers in her drawer, and shake the seeds over the lunch bag that we had scissored open and spread out over the report forms she always left scattered on her desk.
Who would make good on science’s promise to yield revelation, to compel the world to come close and unmask itself to us? Everyone laughed at Stephen Coorsh when he washed his plenaria colony down the drain the night before he finished his biology project. In front of an empty fishbowl Stephen sadly unfolded in class the long stream of graph paper on which he had recorded the daily progress of his experiment. Following his presentation I gave my own indifferent salamander a vicious pinch so that it would rear up on its hind legs, a frightened dinosaur in the palm of my hand. Sometimes during the next class period we would slip down our shirtsleeves the chicken legs that we had dissected, so that when we raised our arms to answer a question we could pull on the tendons and make the scaly claws open and close.
And yet we were invited to lay the same mocking hands on the carcasses of living things, to spill the leavings of life onto old newspapers. A peculiar current charged the room as Mr. Benson unpacked a big, official-looking box and handed out cows’ eyes in oozing sacs of formaldehyde, our final dissection project. I could hardly look at the chunky white globes, swollen with red and blue threads, as they swung slowly from side to side in their plastic bags, sealed casually, like sandwiches, with wire twists. Old enough to realize that we had come suddenly into a new potency, we were yet too young to sense in ourselves the flirtatious shadow of cruelty, the power to ruin, or to guess that our every act could leave a scar.
All along the big table, each of us released a load of slime and chemicals, unsheathed a scalpel, and tapped the delicate membrane coating the eye. Near me I could see Joe Wideman taking a slower look at the eyeball rocking unevenly on the paper in front of him. Mr. Benson’s voice drifted into the background as Joe quietly picked up his scalpel and began with the tip to trace his own route on the surface of the eye: around the black ring of the iris and the dark, empty pupil at the center. With a surgeon’s confidence he sliced into the flesh. Joe took in his fingers the lens of the cow’s eye—as plain an object as a discarded piece of costume jewelry—and dropped it into his mouth, and swallowed. No one saw but me. Something opened, and closed, like a secret; just one terrible moment when I stumbled near to the trembling body of order, when I saw that the world was as small as we were, that it could come apart in our fingers.
* * *
My father’s father was born in this country, but he never seemed at ease anywhere. He was forever pointing his household upward, uprooting his wife to keep pace with Chicago’s rising skyline. First it was to the top floor of the newest building in their own South Side neighborhood, not far from where they had raised their children. But before long he was turning my reluctant grandmother toward the other side of the city, where they knew no one, to the 24th floor of a just-completed high-rise. At his window above the northern lakeshore my grandfather spent long, unspeaking hours keeping anxious watch over the construction site across the street, until the steel frame rose to meet his eye—and in his late seventies he rented yet another apartment, ten stories higher.
His employer seemed to share my grandfather’s craziness for the sky. Their offices were for many years in the 44-story Prudential Building, then Chicago’s highest; and when the stark, black-crossed John Hancock was completed—the tallest building in the world—they were among the first tenants. I would sometimes skip class during high school and take the train to visit my grandfather at whatever high place he was working. Already drunk by noon, he would struggle to focus on my face while he ran his fingers absently through my hair and called me his shaneh maideleh, his pretty little girl. Higher yet, on the building’s observation deck, we would gaze together at the city spread below; I wondered on overcast days if for once we saw the same indistinct world, unsteady and blurred, through the passing clouds.
It’s dinnertime in Joliet, Illinois, and we are on a mission, cruising the downtown streets in search of my grandfather. We are all on vacation together, my father’s parents, my sister and I, my father and my mother. This afternoon we filled plastic bags with fossil ferns returned to the earth’s surface by the strip-mining operations that my grandfather’s company ran before environmental legislation put a stop to the destruction. By the side of the motel swimming pool my grandmother unpacked her load of coleslaw and pickled tongue while my grandfather, ignoring her, disappeared into their room with a full bottle of scotch. Now, without a word, in the back seat of my fathers car my grandfather has opened my grandmother’s handbag in search of a tissue. Among the cracked compacts and the crumpled plastic rain hats and the spill of capsules and pills he has managed to find a naked razor blade and cut his finger on it. Without a word he has flung open the car door and gone off, sulking, for a Band-Aid, shaming his wife and his son and leaving us to track him, hopelessly, in the dense twilight.
Who could follow in the wake of that vacant nerve? Wherever he cast his half-conscious attention my grandfather remained unsettled. Wherever he went, his indifference to the hurt he had sown—his unseen aftermath—would survive, pristine. And his own unsated hunger: his rash attraction to things and his abstraction from them, his lumbering urge to move on.
And yet I respond to his restless, oblivious call. I set out with a friend for the Blue Ridge Mountains, in quest of signs. I swallow against my filling ears as we make the tight, rising turns on dirt roads, far from the highway. On the second story of Richard’s cabin dull strips litter the floor like blown bicycle tires: copperheads have sought high ground up there, to shake off their long, itching hides. I climb the stairs, too, and touch the abandoned skins, hungry to handle the life that was there before us.
Day after day we swing machetes through the underbrush that chokes the yard, and clear the ragged dirt road and edge it with clean stones. Every night the order that we have made is undone. When I emerge into the morning sun, still exhausted, from the disintegrating shack where we sleep, I find new growth on the vines and seedlings that we have just cut back, and snakes bloodied in the road where they have stretched out to hoard the last of the days expiring heat and then been crushed, invisible in the night, by passing cars. Violence presses itself on us; we are inexplicably, inevitably, of it. At dusk we collect moths and crickets and trap them with wasps in empty peanut butter jars. Voyeurs, accomplices: by the light of burning kerosene we watch them do stumbling battle, down to the last lonesome survivor.
* * *
In the little black-and-white snap-shot—a familiar 2 × 2 print from my parents’ old double-lens reflex—the handwritten letters A-L-A-S-K-A hang overhead. It’s our first Fourth of July in the suburbs, and our new hometown is honoring our newest state, the long arctic reach of the Union.
White crepe paper snow blankets the float on which I have been outfitted as a penguin. A cloudless sky bleaches the top half of the frame; summer is beating the air in the heart of the continent. In front of the ornate truck bed a young woman pauses in the obliterating light, one hand cupped defensively at her forehead. And I see myself as my parents’ camera found me, at the end of celebration, dazed and sweltering in the wadded, unmelting snow. I am trying to stand, laboring to shed my stifling costume, the suit and the flippers. I am turned to my father and my mother in the relentless sun: where am I?
* * *
Oh Boy reads the rim of my grandfather’s sombrero, riding his head like a straw inner tube beside my grandmother’s I Love You, in a photo from a Mexican holiday. Their son is Cisco Kid, their daughter-in-law is Honey Moon, and I am Pancho. We are all perched on a wagon draped with serapes. My grandfather looks half asleep, lounging in his suit and tie; next to him his wife is groping nervously for a place to plant her high heels on the rough platform. My grandparents seem as incongruous here as the Merry Christmas banner rippling over their heads in a hot breeze. Only my mother and my father directly face the camera. They smile, holding hands. A disembodied arm reaches in an urgent blur from the left side of the picture to steady me as I start to slip off the twitching burro on which I’m saddled. My eyes are closed, I see no one, my parents and my grandparents levitate silently beneath their roomy, buoyant brims, and I am falling.
Joanne Jacobson is working on a memoir, American Children, set in the suburban American ’50s and ’60s. Her writing has appeared in New England Review, the Nation, Massachusetts Review, Iowa Review, and Journal of the American Medical Association. The author of Authority and Alliance in the Letters of Henry Adams, she teaches American literature and American studies at Yeshiva University.
The black figure has always been a subject of entertainment in popular culture, as well as an image to sell things. In some ways, that’s how people relate to us—because they’ve seen us on television.