News & Politics » Miscellany

Things My Mother Taught Me

About my father. About my body. About winning the love of a man.



The war is over. I live in New York with my mother.

She gives me 65 cents a week. On Saturdays, after my piano lesson at the Juilliard is finished, I go back home and change out of my dress into dungarees. Then I walk 10, 12 blocks to the Nemo or the Olympia. I buy my ticket and a box of jujubes.

The dark movie house swallows me. Sometimes I don't even follow the story on the screen. Danny Kaye says, "Won't you come home with us and be our little girl?" He and his wife decorate me a bedroom with ruffled curtains, a hope chest with Pennsylvania Dutch heart stencils, and a bird's-eye maple four-poster. When they come in to kiss me good night, Danny Kaye puts his thumbs in his ears and flaps his fingers to make Dumbo ears. Or, I turn myself into a newborn foundling in a laundry basket at a front door behind which Spencer Tracy and Katharine Hepburn quarrel. I beg them, "Make up before it's too late." I say, "Go look out on your front porch. Find the baby." When I get home Mama never asks how plots turn out. She hates to be told movies. I'm glad.

Mama says divorce is better than had they lived a lie for my sake.

Mama's mother comes from her farm every year and stays with us until spring.

A block from our apartment, down on 120th and Broadway by the Jewish Theological Seminary, two black and three white children, about my age, ran up to Mama's mother and sang "The Too Fat Polka": "I don't want her, you can have her, she's too fat for me."

"Goddamn race-mixed hellions," Gramma yelled. Even when it won't rain, she carries an umbrella. She shook it at them.

I'm only chubby. A picky eater. My eating habits are bad. I won't eat meat or poultry. Mama says fact-of the matter is I eat what I please. With her finger stuck in my stomach, she points out that I eat chicken gravy, I slop down Campbell's chicken noodle soup.

I'm not tenderhearted. I'm disgusted. I can't eat it if I picture the animal it came off of. The whole chicken, feathers and yellow feet and red comb and beak pecking corn, flops right up onto the breakfast table, batting its wings. With round steak, it's steer's back hip, walking that slow way they do. Canned salmon I can eat, tuna too. I never saw them. Since I lived on the farm with Mama's mother when I was four and five, I've been this way.

Mama is tiny. Her auburn hair curls in a halo. She has blue eyes, and a face her friend Gertrude says can break your heart. Fat people have tormented Mama's life. Her mother, then my father, now me. I ask, "Was he fat when you married him?"

She stops stirring lemon Jello powder into the bowl of hot water for Golden Glow salad and studies me. "Whatever made you ask that?"


"He was heavyset, but not fat. After we married, he let himself go."

He was spoiled rotten by his rich grandparents, who raised him after his mother died when he was six. He was so fat they wouldn't take him in the war. He read all the time and was not interested in working hard. He was one of those persons who think they're smarter than everyone. He subscribed to Fortune magazine even when she had to sew her own clothes. All he was interested in was what was between her legs and getting her to pick up after him and cook his meals.

He does not visit. He agreed with her: he would never. It would be too painful.

You would think I would remember more about him than I do. I remember my kitten, White Fluffy, better. I pulled on her front legs to fit her into doll dresses. I fought so with her to get dresses on her I tore her dewclaw. I pushed the doll bottle into her mouth to make her drink. I carried her pressed against my chest. She struggled. I clamped down harder. Her blue eyes would look up at me, popping. Mama told me not to torment the kitten. I couldn't stop. She was my play-baby.

Finally, one afternoon the summer Mama threw him out (after which she moved from our house in the midwest to here, New York, to study voice and get her master's degree), an afternoon I remember as if it had a frame around it and hung on my wall, I carried White Fluffy across the lawn, dressed in a pink doll dress with puff sleeves. It was hot out. Sheet lightning crackled. She scratched my arms. She'd done it before and I'd managed to keep a grip on her. This time she escaped, through grass that needed cutting and looked spinach green. I chased after her. She got to a poplar tree. She scratched her way to the skinny top and wedged herself in between branch and trunk. You could see her because of the pink dress.

Rain started, in rushes. Mama screamed from the front porch, "Get in here." I was soaked wet. I begged White Fluffy to come down.

Mama ran out, a newspaper unfolded across her head. We could hear White Fluffy mew. Mama called, "Kitty, kitty."

Mama had to drag me by the arm onto the front porch. "Aren't you ashamed of yourself?" she asked, again and again. She swatted my butt and told me to go wipe my nose and quit crying crocodile tears. Mama said that poor godforsaken kitten couldn't get down. She had no place to turn. She was wet, hungry, scared, could starve to death, and I only cried because White Fluffy flouted my will.

When the rain let up some, Mama took off her shoes and scissor-walked through wet grass, which plastered up around her knees. She tried one last time to coax her down. She made me stay on the porch. "That kitten won't come anywhere near if she sees you."

Finally, she called the fire department. They leaned a ladder next to the tree and got White Fluffy in a net.

I don't remember what happened after the firemen left. But from that day, I acted as if White Fluffy and I were strangers. I never touched her. She picked her way across the living room carpet and looked up at me. I looked out the window and hummed. She followed after me into my room and jumped up on the four-poster. She was willing to forgive me and forget. But I wouldn't. I kissed my doll Belinda and pretended to read her a book, although I couldn't read anything except the alphabet.

I remember White Fluffy better than my own father. He bent down to pick flowers. I can see his big backside in khaki trousers. He planted pansies, bluebells, white petunias. I can see a flowerbed and bricks edged around it. Although Mama says he worked in his office, I do not remember his leaving or coming home. I do not remember him shaving in the bathroom, with shave cream on his cheeks and chin, do not remember his face at the dining room table above the white plates we still eat from, or him kissing me good night like Danny Kaye does.

Truth is, I don't remember him, I imagine him looking something like Sydney Greenstreet or Charles Laughton. I wouldn't know him if we bumped into each other in the hall or rode up in the elevator together.

Mama keeps herself trim. But when she leans over after her bath to dry her feet, loose skin hangs down off her stomach as if her skin were an old dress her mother let out at the seams.

I ask what the marks are. Her mother says, "You stretched out her skin."

Mama frowns.

"She might as well know," says her mother, who peels a big red eating apple into one long, curling red peel. "Her time will come just like your time come, Casteel."

"Paul taught me my birds and bees," Mama says to her mother in a high-pitched cartoon voice. She wants to change the subject. "He told me 'I am the stick and you're the hole.'" Paul is Mama's big brother. He teaches cello in Missouri.

"He almost got to be the hole too. When I brought him home and put the diaper on him, very first time I stuck the safety pin right through his privates. Lord, he hates it when I tell that." Her mother quarters the peeled apple. I know she won't offer any. "Go on now, Casteel, tell her."

"First you will have hair under your arms and between your legs. Then you will have a visitor," says Mama, singsong.

"You'll fall off the roof," her mother says, rocking hard in her chair. She chews apple and keeps her eyes on me. She knows I'd like some.

I think, "Why don't you choke."

"And then after your visitor, you will be a little woman, and able to have children."

"Five minutes pleasure, nine months pain," her mother says.

"Oh, my God, Mother." Mama tosses down the tea towel she has in her hands and goes into the kitchen and slams the door.

I break out in a sweat like before I throw up.

"You come back in here now, Casteel," her mother orders.

I go look out the window, down at the grass in the quadrangle between our apartment building and the huge gray stone church. I hope snow will start. Mama comes back in the living room. She snuffles. I keep my back turned and look down at grass and up at sky. I can just about see Angel Gabriel, who leans far out from the church wall. William and I stand on the roof and watch the sun go down and splash the filthy Hudson River red. William is one year older than I am and he is my best friend at home. I am his. William says the river is full of dead bodies and old truck tires. We shoot paper clip halves at Angel Gabriel. "Someday you'll hit him," William says. "You shoot good as any boy."

Mama was shaved. The razor was cold.

But I knew this. Even in second grade I knew I was born. How it was a Saturday, and he listened to a football game on the radio and ate foreign cheese and pickled artichoke hearts and garlic salami out of a delicatessen across the street from the hospital. How he did not care. How he did not hold her hand. Uncle Paul was in the Seabees, which he called the best vacation he ever had. He was on Okinawa and gathered seashells he brought home to us in seabags. Her mother could not get off the farm because of her lousy pickup and the gas shortage. How the nuns watched over her. "Even though we weren't Catholic." How nuns wore white wimples. How nuns wear their underwear when they take a bath so they won't see themselves down there. When she was laid out on the table and only half doped up she looked up and saw large silver instruments and knew her baby was being born. "You liked to tore out your poor mama's guts, as big as you were, and come out back-asswards," her mother says. Suffered through all this misery wide-awake even though they gave her twilight sleep, while he walked, like this was a weekend, across the street, bought more cheese. He kissed her with the salami stuck right between his front teeth and his mouth stunk of garlic.

They would always say when I was in the bathtub, "Wash down there." They scrub me hard. They study me. "She thinks she's got somethin' special, Casteel," her mother snickers when I put the terry towel over myself, "all she's got is biscuit."

After they take a bath and dry off, Mama and her mother put Cashmere Bouquet talcum powder under their arms and between their legs. They shake it out of a can. I walk in spatters of it that fall on the bathroom floor, and think of them dead. Especially her mother.

"Casteel, don't it remind you of ol' Ham the way she pouts out that lower lip of hers?"

Hamilton is my father's first name.

I am lazy, like my father. Mama and her mother stay busy. Her mother unravels old sweaters she buys at used stores and knits new sweaters for us. She chops cabbage for slaw and rolls out piecrust. Mama studies and goes to music theory classes and to her practice room to vocalize and to the grocery. When she gets home she has to cook dinner if her mother isn't visiting us and wash and dry dishes and wash and iron clothes and pick up after me. I wallow in the bed. My jacks pile up, all over the rug. I leave my crayons out of the box. I do not come home on time to practice piano. I run off to Grant's Tomb with William and Pat Glass and throw my ball against the wall and catch it and throw it and catch it. William is the only boy who will play jacks with me. We go up to the roof and he will play jacks by the hour. Which for the moment seems like all I want to do. I love the cool metal feel of them when I scoop, them all up in my hand.

It's true. I can't make myself do what they tell me. My feet get heavy and in my head a war's on between what they want and what I want.

I could have built the Great Wall of China with stones I've rolled across my head to block against what she says about how I act like him. I hate him, too, after all. I say so. They stare.

On sidewalks, I step on cracks, break her back.

I am afraid at the school swimming pool. Nights before swim class I dream about it. Then, when I am in my suit at the pool, the dream and real pool get mixed. The pool is in the basement. It is Olympic length. The tiles are green-blue. All the girls in our class line up at the pool edge. Coach says, "Starting at the head of the line, dive." Poppy stands next to me. Poppy is a child model. She tells me, "You can't model if you can pinch fat on yourself." She pinches the roll of fat that sits on my suit under my arms. My toes curl on the edge of the pool. I am sick to my stomach. Waves in the pool wave in my head. I put my head down and look into blue ripples. The roar of our voices echoes. The chlorine smell is hot. My eyes burn. Hairs on my arms stand up straight out of goose bumps. "Just grip your legs," Coach tells me, "look into the water and pitch forward." The blue water will stop up my mouth. I know it will. Coach says, "I am right here," and pushes me in. I do choke. Everybody looks the other way.

By third grade I am almost as tall as Mama. Her mother says, "You're tall for your age, built big, like your father." When I groan, she says to Mama, "She's gonna be the type you have to watch like a hawk because she'll have hot pants."

I read about broken homes and my psychological problems in women's magazines. Mama's mother buys them to read when she rides the subway to Macy's for sales. Mama says: "Mama, you hoard.".

"Bad times come under this haberdasher Truman you'll be glad of it I put by."

Children from broken homes who live alone with their mothers feel afraid of everything. They grow up to be nervous, fearful adults. They grow up to be physical cowards.

Children whose parents are divorced will do anything to get back to the time before their parents broke up. This is their hidden desire.

They daydream. They build a protected hiding place inside themselves. They will be lonely there.

A secret wish will never die. You can't kill it. It works all your life to keep itself alive. A person may fall ill from wishes he cannot make come true.

If a child from a broken home does not talk to anyone about what the trouble is, the child may get sick, physically, or go crazy.

I have symptoms. I am scared of myself.

I draw a rectangle almost as big as the paper: my father. I color it brown, for a brown suit. I draw in black stripes, for a pinstripe brown suit. I hold the paper under the lamp until the paper turns warm and you can smell heated up crayon wax. I know when I do this, this is sad. It is the best I can do.

I go up on the roof and sit. I can see the Hudson, the New Jersey shore. I can see Palisades Amusement Park. The other way, I can see Saint John the Divine. When I look down I see tarred roofs and leafy green treetops. The sun goes down and treetops darken. River turns penny color. Smoke curls up out of chimneys. I wait for my father. The bells play. He swoops me up in his arms. He twirls me around. He says, "Oh, my darling daughter." When he turns to go, tears burn in my eyes. He gives a doll for comfort.

I draw the doll. I give her yellow pigtails tied with green grosgrain ribbons.

At dinnertime Mama slits open baked potatoes. Steam rises between us. "That is Vesuvius," I say.

At school what I say is, "My father died in the war." Amy's father is a bird colonel. Amy asks where my father died. "Vesuvius."

Amy is the fattest girl I have seen. Her dresses catch in rolls of her stomach. She almost never moves, and when she does stand up from her seat, her hips sway from side to side, and from behind she looks old as my grandmother. Amy wears brown-and-white saddle oxfords just like teenagers do. Nobody else our age at our school wears them. Amy has a doll that eats. After she's fed, you open up her head in back and, take out the food. She also has a plush toy dog that you unzip, and inside there's puppies.

In third grade, I hold on to the pool edge and kick. I am the only one who cannot swim. At night I dream an octopus holds me under. We fight. I lose. Amy lays on her back on top of ripples. Her stomach mounds mountain high above water. Sweat pops out on her forehead. She smiles as if she sleeps with a good dream.

William never asks about my father. His mother, who Mama says is a nosy old dame, has asked. "In the war," I told her, "a decorated hero."

The danger in lies is you will believe them. I don't. Who would want to say what I know?

Mama has a date to go see South Pacific starring Mary Martin and Ezio Pinza. Her new beau has a mustache and is a choir director. His name is Karl and she thinks he may be the one.

She and her friend Gertrude shop for a suit for her, houndstooth check and smart, and a small black hat with feathers out the side. Her mother and I are to stay in our rooms when he comes for her. "I mean business," she tells us and grits her teeth.

The next morning after she vocalizes, she sings "Bali Ha'i" and "Some Enchanted Evening." Mama and Karl have interests in common. "And isn't that the most important consideration?" she asks her mother.

"The most important consideration is he'll make a living."

As soon as Mama thinks a new boyfriend may call, or even has one in mind, she builds her hopes up. She calls Gertrude.

They try all her hats and dresses on her. They tie scarves ways they learned in scarf magic class. Mama poses in front of the mirror and practices a Miss America walk with swayed hips. Gertrude shrieks, "Hubba, hubba."

Gertrude fixes Mama in a kitchen chair with a plastic cape around her shoulders and gives her a Toni. They talk half the night. Before Mama's new date even shows up the first time he mentions an old Army buddy and Mama and Gertrude double-date. All at once they describe the quiet little wedding to which Mama wears a pale blue Alencon-lace cocktail-length gown, with Gertrude the maid of honor who catches the bridal bouquet. They stop to teach Gertrude to say "Alencon." "Froggy-like," Mama tells her. She plugs Gertrude's long nose with her fingers, "as if you had a head cold." After the wedding reception, there's the fabulous two-week honeymoon in Bermuda, then Mama moves into a big new suburban house with washer, home freezer, TV, custom drapes. Mama never has to work another day in her life. She becomes a world-renowned opera star and wears furs like Lily Pons and can snoot the snoot to Mrs. T. Anybody, Esquire. Next thing you know, Gertrude marries the Army buddy, who turns out to be excruciatingly well-to-do, an heir, and moves next door into a house the absolute double of Mama's, and she opens her own knitting shop and sends back to Norway for her sisters and mother. They all live the life of Riley.

When morning comes, Toni curl solution still makes my eyes water. Mama's and Gertrude's fingers left streaks through brown popcorn grease on the inside of the Pyrex bowl and even though they promised to leave me some popcorn there's nothing to eat in the bowl but a few burned old-maid kernels.

I do not believe in her boyfriends anymore. Charlie doesn't pan out, and Karl turns out to be peculiar.

I want to change from modern to ballet. Mama pinches my stomach fat. "Face facts," she says. She does not face them.

Her mother and I learn canasta. After you meld it's not exciting, so I get bored and flop down on the carpet and draw a house with a front door, two windows, a chimney with smoke. You can see a Christmas tree through the window. I decorate it with balls and a star. In front of the house you see mother, father, sister, brother. Her mother looks. "Where is the nice granny who comes all the way from the farm to look after you?"

She licks her chops.

As soon as Christmas vacation starts I get chicken pox. They hold me down and put drops in my nose. Her mother pushes a tablespoonful of milk of magnesia down my throat. I vomit it onto her clean apron. She swats me.

"I'll see you in hell." It comes right out of me. Even I am surprised.

Uncle Paul will be there any day now. They will tell him how I talk to her.

"She tires more easily, but she still rules with an iron fist," Mama says to Uncle Paul about their mother when he comes for Christmas.

When I see Uncle Paul up against other men he isn't tall, and his head is big for his body like Mama's, and his eyes the same blue. He complains about his high forehead. "This dome," he says, and brushes his hair back with his palm. In the morning, he takes his coffee into the bathroom, puts the cup on the lavatory, then shaves. When he's got his whiskers cut, he slaps on "smell 'um."

Then he parts his hair. He combs carefully. The comb's teeth show. He wears suits and ties. He ties ties on after breakfast. He likes red socks, and on days he wears them he lifts up his trouser leg a little, shows the red, and says, "Flashy, huh?"

Uncle Paul takes us out to dinner almost every night. Chinese, mostly. The truth is he doesn't like their mother's cooking. "All that rich gravy and fried food." He wriggles his nose. "No wonder she's sick to her stomach half the night."

Mama claims Uncle Paul gives impractical gifts (my Schmoo pendulum clock for instance), that he spoils me, he buys soda pop whenever I ask. "And sometimes," she says, "he is too theatrical."

I cannot quit singing "Rudolph the Red-Nosed Reindeer." Mama gets mad. "Shut up!" she screams and slaps my cheek. The cheek fat rattles above my teeth.

"You ladies, try to get along," says Uncle Paul, and giggles. Mama gives him a dirty look. "Next winter, I promise you, Casteel, I will take Mother."

"You would go crazy," Mama sighs.

Mama and Uncle Paul plan to talk business while their mother takes her nap. They send me to my room. My father lives in the same town as Uncle Paul. My father has a new wife. I hear Uncle Paul say, "She looks enough like you to be you, that's what people say, Casteel."

Uncle Paul and Mama decide Mama must get her doctor's degree so she can teach. "I should have learned shorthand. I would have married the boss. I could have been on easy street by now."

For Christmas Gertrude gives Mama a navy blue dress she knit and Norman Vincent Peale's Power of Positive Thinking. "Positive thinking didn't get old Gertrude a man," says Uncle Paul, who tries to make a joke while Mama sobs.

I come around the corner. Uncle Paul puts his finger to his lips to tell her I am in the room. But she does not see. His handkerchief covers up her face.

"No one will marry me."

"It's because of me," I tell Uncle Paul. I think he might take me home with him, and let me drink pop, eat potato chips, and do as I please.

Mama pulls the hanky off her face. She rises up out of the white linen like Esther Williams out of deep water. "Love me, love my cow," she says, and hugs me.

Art accompanying story in printed newspaper (not available in this archive): illustration/Peter Hannan.

Add a comment