There you are. We got you.
On Being Human with Jennifer Pastiloff
We've been waiting for you. Isn't it incomprehensible what the imagination is capable of? How deeply we want affection and love? How we are, even at five years old, willing to risk our lives to find it? There is a scar above my mother's right eye, barely visible. I remember how my mother would always say, When your time is up, it is up, don't be afraid. Her time was not up, it would seem, by her reasoning. Bubbe Rose pulling her into her bosom, Shh, Bubbelah, I love you, it's going to be okay, and my mother closed her eyes and saw only her own mother saying, I wish you were never born. My mother took her grandmother's love and placed it somewhere inside of her next to the darkness of being unwanted and unloved and I grew from that.
An idea as inconceivable as being run over by a two-ton vehicle and surviving with only a tiny scar that has to be pointed out to be noticed at all. When my mother's grandmother Rose got to the end, my mother held her hand and whispered, Shh, shhh, it's going to be all right, reaching inside of herself and away from the darkness to that memory of safety and love, and there she found the idea. The idea was this: I can give this away, this love, I do not have to keep it here in the dark, I can give it away and create more, even if I don't remember what it feels like to be loved.
I can create it. All the stories that live inside of me, that I am holding, both sustain and haunt me. The time when my mother was eighteen and had started working in Center City in Philly, at Rohm and Haas, a chemical manufacturer, where she worked in foreign operations marketing and airfreight.
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She'd bought all new clothes for the job, and came home once to find that her mother had taken a scissors and sliced through all of them in her closet. She sat and wept into half of a skirt, a sleeve, a pant leg, and yet, still, on every Mother's Day, she sent flowers; she tried so hard to reach inside of herself and find a memory besides that of her grandmother Rose that said I love you, and when she could not find any, she begged her mother to love her, until she died all those years later when my mother was sixty-three years old.
Please love me, please love me, please love me and my grandmother sealed her ears to those pleas and sat on her plastic-covered sofa in the dark and did crossword puzzles and complained about the weather. Before I was born, I was just a memory of love, and thank the gods of coffee and books for that memory, because if my mother did not have her grandmother Rose, if she was left to the machinations of her own mother, she would be forever stuck in that South Philly row house. My grandmother was endlessly picking up men at the nightclub where she was the hatcheck girl.
They were dangerous and mean. Sometimes my mother sat in a damp basement with the neighbor my grandmother left her with when she went on dates. I can imagine men pulling my mother to them, her small body a separate planet entirely. How could she have stayed in her body and endured? Luckily my mother had the memory somewhere inside that body she so often left, a memory of the love she had felt from her grandmother. Before we are molecules, we are memory.
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Every time my grandmother winced as she looked at my mother, every time she tried to unspeak her into not existing, that's in me. My mother grew up in a brick row house in South Philadelphia on Reese Street. Her mother's parents, whom she called Bubbe Rose and Zayda Al , also lived with them. They both died before I was born.
It was a dark, narrow space that always smelled like cat pee when I would visit as a child. I rummaged in my grandparents' basement for Barbie doll clothes my great-grandmother Helen, my grandfather's mother, had sewn. My mother's stories have been in me as long as I can remember. Both my mom and my dad treated me like an adult since the time I could talk, so the tales of my grandmother Marion have no origin story for me. I have always known: she was a monster.
I remember asking my mom, Why didn't Grandmom ever say she loved us? Did she hate my sister and me?
On Being Human: A Memoir of Waking Up, Living Real, and Listening Hard
Why does she sit in the dark all the time? Why is she so mean? My grandmother got pregnant with my mom when she was eighteen years old. My grandfather had been a sailor stationed at the Philadelphia Navy Yard and was only home once a year until the time my mom and her sister, Ellen, were teenagers. When I started asking serious questions about why my grandmother was so unkind, it was as if my mother became uncorked and all the years of abuse and neglect and sheer terribleness flowed out of her and into the air.
She told me everything. It was and I was reading Judy Blume's Forever. I was eight years old and my father was still alive and I thought how lucky he was that he had my Bubbe, who was so loving and gentle and grandmotherly, and how unfair it was that my mom had grown up with her monster of a mother. That was my first true moment of realizing that there is no such thing as fair. I decided then that fair was a made-up word that might as well be in the fairy tale I was reading except I was not reading fairy tales, I was reading about sex and penises named Ralph and any other adult book I could get my grubby paws on.
Marion, my grandmother, worked as a hatcheck girl at Big Bill's, a nightclub in Center City, Philadelphia. She slept every day until three p.
How do you start your day?
Once she left for work it was calm again, my mother told me. My grandmother had dates with all those men while my grandfather was away in the navy. She said, "She would brag about giving me the present, but it never came from her. It was always from the boyfriends. A smoky topaz heart on a gold chain my mother wore all her life.
And once, a cocker spaniel named Sandy, whom my grandmother later abandoned in the street. My mother told me these stories while I sat at our kitchen dinette set in Pennsauken with the yellow vinyl cushions, the backs of my thighs stuck to them, making that noise they make when they peel off, like suction cups, and I watched my mom put flounder in the oven as I wrote stories. I let one leg at a time stick to the vinyl and then pulled it off like a vacuum, thinking it was hilarious because it was something my dad liked to do. My father had a high-pitched laugh, like a sheep.
He'd bray after he asked, "Who did that? Was it you, Jennifer? My father never cooked. Never even poured his own cereal, or so the story goes. I recall only my mom doing anything remotely domesticated, like cleaning or cooking, grocery shopping, and making her own salad dressings. My dad's job was to go to work in a men's clothing store, make us laugh, buy us presents, and sing "You Are My Sunshine" to us before bed.
Other than that, my mom did it all.
Book — Jennifer Pastiloff
Even simple tasks like driving my sister and me to school: my dad often got lost on the three-mile drive. There were dishes in the sink, patterned plates, long foggy glasses with my father's lip marks. The island in the center of the kitchen had not been built yet. That came after my father died, when my mother used most of his life-insurance money to remodel the kitchen right before we left the house forever.
My mom talked as she made dinner or cleaned the kitchen counter with Clorox. She told me so many stories as if no one had ever listened to her in her entire life, which I came to realize they hadn't. I was the first, and I had to work hard to hear her above my constant tinnitus that I didn't understand or tell anyone about. I assumed this was what everyone heard, how sound existed in everyone's head. I was fascinated with understanding why we had to go visit my grandmother Marion, why my mother still sent her presents, why my mom didn't hate her.
I wanted to know why why why and how how how as I peeled my sweaty summer leg off the kitchen chair and stuck it back on, again and again, until my mom asked me to stop because the sound was driving her crazy. It felt like an impossible math equation to me and I was awful at math. If my mom had such an odious childhood and such an awful mom, why did we have a relationship with her? It did not make sense. I forgive," my mother said as she unloaded groceries and put them away; Pepsi for my dad and his Breyers chocolate ice cream. Those are always the groceries of my memories.
Coffee, Kools, Breyers. I never wanted to forgive my grandmother. My mom had told me too many things, things I perhaps already knew, things that lived so far in the marrow of me that I did not even need to hear them spoken aloud in kitchens, yet when I did, I wanted to throw things at walls, and at my mother. Be the first to discover new talent! Each week, our editors select the one author and one book they believe to be most worthy of your attention and highlight them in our Pro Connect email alert. Sign up here to receive your FREE alerts.