Maybe Magic Things

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

The camp was a two week retreat that surrounded a picturesque lake reflecting billions of evergreen tips poking the clouds, several rickety wooden docks and apartment-like cabins. There were church services, arts and crafts, and no 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 just seemed to think I’d finally understood everything about Jesus, Heaven and the Rapture now that my mom was out of the picture. But all I knew was that I missed my mother so much that I was having pains in my chest like someone carved a hole deep out of my heart with an ice cream scooper without an ounce of regret. It confused me then. I was eight after all. Was all this normal? How many times were they going to break up? I knew it wasn’t normal.

Equally confusing was when I started crushing on a boy I saw in a little row boat on the lake. He was about my brother’s age, maybe 10, with curly blond locks to his shoulders. I’d follow 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 was, I didn’t care. I still liked her and followed her around just the same. I was too shy to spark a conversation. I also felt like there was something very wrong with me and 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 fucking deal. It was even in the town newspaper. My dad told my mom what he was doing and 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 seemed to make her out to be satanic because she was not religious, and ungodly because she was a Jew. But my mom was religious enough. She did believe in God and told me many times. I wondered if my parents even talked to each other about such things or if they fought exclusively for sport.

In spite of it all, I was beginning to think half of me was unworthy because I was Jewish. It seemed extra important for me to get baptized to cleanse the Jew out of me. Otherwise, I didn’t belong. I didn’t belong so long as my parents were separated, 3,000 miles from one another, angry and stubbornly bicoastal.

Living with my Uncle Kermit and Aunt Dolly did have its perks, however. The rolling hills of Lehigh Valley loop-de-looped around us like emerald-covered sound waves. Maybe Uncle Kermit wasn’t as friendly as the frog on Sesame Street, but at least my mind could get lost on the beautiful winding roads. These roads entered my dreams, leading me back and forth between sunlit pastures, under covered bridges near bevies of woods – trees so dense they’d take the sky away and my mind right along with it. I’d dream during the night and throughout the day as well. I didn’t know then, at eight, what being disassociative meant. Looking back, I was definitely “not there” most of the time, probably as a means of coping with such dysfunction.

There were flickers of true childhood though. The bible thumping family had a 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, Mike and I would run for what seemed like miles in the back yard along a hedge of wild sunflowers that bordered the back of Kermit and Dolly’s property. The land went on and on – something nonexistent in Los Angeles. It was like nothing I’d ever experienced. A brief year out of my life that’s just a memory that doesn’t even seem like 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 color palette of nature struck me. It was all so sad without my mom. I started to imagine her outside of my school in a magical taxicab that hovered down from the sky, waiting for me. She’d appear as a princess while she’d scoop me up in her arms and glitter would fall all around us. Back to LA we’d go and live happily ever after. 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. The house was so close, I could smell hickory chips in the fire.

Then, one day in the fall, when walkers were finally dismissed, I began walking up the street, and 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 and I hadn’t tried mind-altering drugs yet. I could hardly believe what I was seeing. She was waving me towards her. I didn’t even have time to pinch myself, but it was real.

I got into the cab. She was crying and hugging me, kissing me all over my face while we rolled away and headed straight to the Philadelphia airport. I was excited, but scared. I knew I’d just been kidnapped. And I knew my father was going to be worried and pissed off at her. What about school? What about clothes? I didn’t have more than the ones on my back. This fantasy come true became very strange. And 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, but it had been a long time. I only knew I wanted my mom. But 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 at the time. I remember orange water coming out of the faucets because the pipes were so fucked up. The whole building smelled of mold. And I could swear I heard live chickens in the room next to us. My mom was fucked up too. Her hair was wild and undone. It was the first time I saw her roots and they were almost all gray. Now she was depressed. She cried on and off. She was rapid cycling – optimistic one minute and 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. Both of them were telling her to put me back on a plane to Pennsylvania. 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!”

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 in one way or another, scratching herself with a tweezers on her arm, or punching herself in the head, saying she was a loser. She was a mess. I swung between crying for her or ignoring her, relieved when she’d sleep from popping a pill or two. I guess I forgot 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 even knowing if I was staying or going. Having my mom back was not as glittery as I had dreamed.

Eventually my nana made several visits to the motel and shook a glimmer of reality into her, mostly by yelling into her face. It didn’t take long after that – maybe three days – when Mom 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. And so they put me back on a plane 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 my 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 Dad and Mike, 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, only these were flakes of snow. Real snow. And they were quickly speckling 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 we hurried to get out there. We skidded around on the grass in our west coast sneakers, ate the snowflakes as they ‘d fall from above, and gathered up enough on the ground to throw at each other. The last thing we wanted to do was eat Thanksgiving dinner, but of course we did and the turkey made us tired – as expected. I remember going to bed early thinking about all the magical snowflakes. But always in the back of my mind was my parents’ unhappiness. Because I was still a child, I was still an optimist and wondered if there’d be hope for our family. A miracle fell from the sky after all. Why not?

The next morning there were blue skies and everything was covered, thick and white. It was the most beautiful thing I’d ever seen. All the rooftops and trees, the ground and everyone’s cars were coated in fluffy cotton. 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 the red mittens that Aunt Dolly knitted.

I visited the icy windowsills so I could get a better look at these strange specimens, like a moronic scientist baffled at how water could freeze in time. Upon my inspection, I noticed the sun shining on the ice, causing the tips to drip. They were slowly melting. Nothing good, if it ever was from the start, lasts forever. I knew it only was a matter of time.

With my mitten fingers, I began plucking the icicles off the ledges one by one. The differing lengths made interesting sounds, so I went to the next window and pulled them all off in one motion. They made a noise like someone sweeping a mallet across a xylophone as the ice broke away. It reminded me of a cartoon mouse playing skeleton bones like a marimba, which made me laugh. I went from window sill to window sill breaking off as many icicles rows as I could. The more satisfying the sound, the more I knew everything was going to be okay.

*

New revision, August 1st, 2017
Maybe Magic Things