Maybe Magic Things

I don’t remember agreeing to it, but that mattered not, because either way we were off to Crestbrook Bible Camp in the Pocono Mountains. My brother and me versus the church, and the rest of my dad’s anti-Semitic family.

The camp would be a two week retreat surrounded by a picturesque lake that reflected about a billion evergreen tips poking into the clouds. Several rickety wooden docks dangerously lead out to the lake, and we’d stay in one of the apartment-like cabins that looked as if they hadn’t been cleaned since the 1950s. There’d be scheduled meals, scheduled prayers on top of church services, singing spirituals around the campfires, arts and crafts, and no fucking way out.

I remember making a cross out of match sticks and my first handmade book called, “The Book of the Lamb.” My father’s older sister, Aunt Dolly, gave me such praise for that thing — not for its impressive hand-sewn binding or my painted illustrations; she only thought I’d at last understood the Rapture now that my mom was out of the picture. All I knew was I missed my mother to such a painful degree, it felt as if someone carved a deep hole out of my heart with an ice cream scooper without one ounce of regret. It confused me then, and eight years-old. Was all this normal? Were my parents trying to set a record to see how many times they could break up? Somewhere, in the back of my premature adult mind, I knew — in no sane world were they normal.

Equally confusing, I started crushing on a boy I saw in a tiny row boat on the lake. About my brother’s age, maybe 10, he had curly blond locks that fell to his shoulders. I followed him around camp when I had nothing better to do. Then, one day I saw him in a dress and realized he was a girl. Funny thing, I didn’t care. Not one bit. I still liked her and followed her around just the same. I only gained the feeling there was something very wrong with me. When the guilt of being a little sexual deviant became overbearing, I eventually left her alone.

When we got back to Allentown, Dad talked to Mike and me about getting baptized. Did we accept Jesus Christ as our Lord and Savior? At the time, I suppose I did. I never heard of Jesus Christ being anything other than the Lord and Savior. Plus, I knew that’s what my dad wanted me to do. That was what Uncle Kermit and Aunt Dolly wanted too.

Well, as it turned out, the two Jewish kids from Los Angeles getting baptized was a big goddamned deal. We were even in the town newspaper. Later, I found out, when my dad told my mom what he did with us, she said, “You can dunk them in all the holy water you want — they’re still Jewish!”

Since my mom was gone, my dad and his family portrayed her to be a terrible, mentally ill human being, unfit to provide a stable upbringing for children. They made her out to be satanic, because she was not religious. An ungodly Jew. But my mom was religious enough. She did too believe in God and told me so, many times. I wondered if my parents talked to each other about such things, or about anything for that matter. Perhaps they could only scream and yell, or fought exclusively for sport.

My parents stayed separated, 3,000 miles apart, seemingly forever; angry and stubbornly bicoastal. The longer I stayed with my father’s family, the more I began to think half of me was unworthy. It seemed extra important for me to get baptized — to cleanse the Jew out of me. Otherwise, I didn’t belong. So I took the holy bath with the pastor. I felt, no different. Was something magical supposed to happen?

Living with my Uncle Kermit and Aunt Dolly did have its perks, however. The rolling, lumpy hills of Lehigh Valley loop-de-looped around us like jade-covered sound waves. Maybe Uncle Kermit wasn’t as friendly as the Sesame Street frog, as he’d often beat my brother for refusing to go to church, but at least my mind would wander and lose itself on winding roads — paths I could not differentiate from what entered into my dreams. Silencing screams. Deadening sounds, while following butterflies that skittered me back and forth between sunlit pastures.

Sometimes, the family would take long drives off the main highway, under covered bridges near bevies of woods — trees so dense they’d take the sky away, and my mind right along with it. I still have flickers of idealist beauty, true childhood, even happiness, as my bible thumping family had a charming vegetable farm. I was in charge of gathering the green beans, snapping off the tips and placing them into a basket. I’d clean them in the outdoor sink while Buck, Kermit’s old Bassett hound lay beside me. When chores were done, my brother and I would run for what seemed like miles in the back yard along a hedge of wild sunflowers that bordered the property. The land went on and on — something nonexistent in Los Angeles. Maybe a memory that doesn’t even exist as my own.

I suppose I prayed then, but I prayed directly to God. For me, there was no middleman. I prayed and wished my mom would come and take me away from it all, no matter how spectacular the colors seemed to be. It was just a façade, and way too sad experiencing it all without her.

I started to imagine her waiting for me, outside of my school. She’d arrive in a four-passenger spaceship, a fantastical taxicab, that hovered down from the clouds. A sky princess she was, or appeared to be, and now, I was one too. She’d raise me up into her arms and glitter would fall all around us. Back to LA we’d go and live happily ever after in a cottage near the LA River. So silly, but I’d wish for this constantly. Yet every day was the same. At the end of the school day, the loud speaker in the classroom would dismiss each group of students, one at a time.

“Bus 15, Bus 24, Bus 33,” and so on.

After all the damn bus kids got dismissed, the kids that walked home were finally let go.

“Walkers are dismissed…Walkers are dismissed.”

They said it twice. I waited for that female voice to say those long-awaited words while the minutes passed — well after three o’clock I might add. I’d watch the clock above the teacher’s head: click, click… The house was so close, I could smell hickory chips baking in the fire.

Then, one day in the fall, when walkers were finally dismissed, I began walking up the street alone, and without by brother. Lo and behold, I saw my mother — in a taxicab — waiting for me. No joke. I thought it was a hallucination, but I was eight, years away from trying mind-altering drugs. I could hardly believe what I was seeing. She was waving me towards her into the cab. I didn’t have time to pinch myself, but it was real.

Once I came to her, she was crying and hugging me, kissing me all over my face. We rolled away and headed straight to the Philadelphia airport. Excited, but scared. I knew I’d just been kidnapped. I knew my father would be worried, and pissed off. What about school? What about clothes? I didn’t have more than the ones on my back. This fantasy come true now became very strange.

I wasn’t paying much attention to her disposition either. I forgot all about her manic depression — that’s what we called it at the time. I’d been used to her ups and downs, though, it had been a long time. I only knew I wanted my mommy. By the time we landed in Los Angeles, I remembered it all very clearly.

She’d been staying at a sleazy motel in the south end of Korea Town, not the greatest area of LA. I remember rusty orange water coming out of the faucets. The whole building smelled of mold. And I could swear I heard live chickens in the room next to us. My mom was so fucked up too. How didn’t I see it until then? Her hair was wild and undone. It was the first time I saw her roots, and they were almost all gray. The next morning, she was so depressed she hardly acknowledged me. She cried on and off and was then rapid cycling — optimistic one minute — in a black hole the next. We never left the motel; she was either on the phone with her mother or fighting with my father about how she wanted to take care of me “from now on.” I could hear my father through the receiver screaming at her, which just gave her additional anxiety. She’d bang the receiver on the rug and yell, “No, no no!” How can she possibly take care of me?

When she wasn’t on the floor on the phone, she was sitting on the stinky blue couch, crying and hitting herself. I would try to stop her, but she kept trying to harm herself, scratching herself with a tweezers on her arm, or punching herself in the head. She kept saying she was a loser. She was a mess. I swung between crying for her, or ignoring her. I felt relieved when she’d take a tranquilizer to sleep. I guess I’d forgotten how bad it was, though I’d seen much worse. This time, no one was around to take care of her, but me. When she slept, I did my homework, not knowing if I was staying or going. Having my mom back was not as glittery, or magical, as I had dreamed.

Three days in, she began to realize the obvious. She couldn’t take care of me. She could hardly make me a bologna sandwich. Even when her mania subsided, she was left catatonic, robotically functional at best. But she put me back on a plane back to Pennsylvania with a TWA chaperon by my side.

Up in the air, I waited five hours while the same ten songs played over and over inside my headphones. They were the same songs that played when I was flying with Mom to LA. During that year, I would fly on that same route, back and forth between their squabbles, listening to those songs. They became the soundtrack of my life. The lyrics to Dreams by Fleetwood Mac reeled in my head as if the song was written specifically for my family. “What you had, and what you loved…” That line was especially true no matter which direction I was flying.

Now that I was back in Allentown with my Dad and brother, things weren’t so bad. In fact, a couple of weeks later something amazing happened. It was something so marvelous that I didn’t think about anything sad. Because on Thanksgiving day, it began to snow.

Late in the afternoon, my dad yelled for us to come to the living room window, and there it was. It was as if God was shaking a giant box of instant mashed potatoes over Pennsylvania. Real snow quickly speckled up the grass in the front yard. It was the most magical moment in the history of our world. We’d never seen such a thing before and hurried to get out there. We skidded around on the grass in our west coast sneakers, ate the snowflakes as they fell from above, and gathered up enough on the ground to throw at each other, but not quite enough to pulverize the other’s face. The last thing we wanted to do was eat Thanksgiving dinner, but we did anyway. The turkey made us tired. I remember going to bed early thinking about snowflakes. Although, always in my ears, even still, I’ve heard faint screaming. People arguing. Although then, as a child, I remained an optimist. I held out hope for our family.

Perhaps a miracle would fall from the sky. Why not? Snowflakes did.

The next morning there were blue skies, and everything was covered, thick and white. The rooftops and trees, the ground. It was crazy. Everyone’s cars were coated in big, fluffy cotton dollops. Icicles hung below windows. They looked like melting diamonds stuck in time. I couldn’t wait to see them up close, so I ventured out in my snow gear and wore my red, hand-knitted red mittens that Aunt Dolly made for me.

I visited the icy windowsills and got a better look at these strange specimens, like a little moronic scientist. Upon my inspection, I noticed sunshine on the ice, causing the tips to drip. Slowly, they were melting and I began to well up in sadness. Disappointed, again.

Nothing good, if it ever was from the start, lasts forever.

Now I knew, it was only a matter of time; I quickly ran over to each windowsill in the neighborhood, and with my mitten fingers, I began plucking the icicles off the ledges one by one. The differing lengths made interesting sounds. At the next window, I’d pull them all off in one motion. They made a noise like someone swept a mallet across a xylophone while ice broke away. It reminded me of a cartoon sound effect. I laughed. There’s something. I broke off as many icicle rows as I could, destroying them before the sun could melt them away. Playing God. The more I’d break, and satisfying the sound, the more I thought I could make everything better.


New revision, June 9, 2018