by Hillary Tiefer
If you want this brooch, it’s yours. I suppose you think it’s vintage. I never liked it and meant to throw it out. It’s junk jewelry. Those are rhinestones and fake rubies. Your grandmother bought it for her mother-in-law, Ida. Even though I was only around five or six I remember her saying to me, “It’s shaped like a crown so I thought it’s perfect for Ida. She thinks she’s the Queen of Sheba.”
It was for Ida’s big bash sixtieth birthday party, held at the clubhouse in Coney Island where her husband, Seymour, played poker and pinochle. We walked there from their apartment building in Coney Island because it was only a block away. Being very young I only remember that it was mobbed with adults, who sat at folding tables while I skipped on the black and white squares of linoleum.
Strangely, when I hold this brooch I think of Coney Island. I taste salt, like when I braved the waves during the summer months, and I hear the ocean, muted like the sound of a conch shell against my ear.
The last time I’d go to Coney Island it was November and the sound of the ocean was far from muted—the waves slammed against the beach during a storm. I was fifteen then—four years after my father’s death. Ida was dying and wanted my mother to come. I insisted on joining her, and your old Aunt Francine accompanied us. Of course, she wasn’t old then, still in her thirties. She was a great support to my mother after your grandfather died.
My life changed radically after his death. It wasn’t that I missed him so much—we were never close. Once when I demanded attention from him my mother shouted for me to stop. “Leave your father alone,” she said. “He has enough stress at work.” He was an accountant for a big firm with offices in a skyscraper downtown Manhattan. He’d take a train early in the morning and return by train between seven and eight in the evening, when I was already finished with dinner and doing homework upstairs. So, he was often absent from my life. But our secure existence vanished after he lost his battle with cancer. I had to leave our pretty ranch style house in Bethpage in Long Island to live in the ugly neighborhood of Canarsie, Brooklyn. I also missed my friends and my school. I couldn’t understand that my mother sold our house because we had to live solely on her income as a nurse. She bought a small brick row house with no backyard and a patch of grass in front, shaded by one limp maple.
That first year was a difficult time: I lashed out at her and she wept. But Aunt Franny, who lived with her family down the block, saved us. She was always hugging and kissing us, and I liked her big taxi-driver husband, Leon, and my little cousins, Paula and Barry. I went to their home often after school while my mother worked at the hospital.
My mother insisted Aunt Franny go with her to Coney Island. She needed her for support. Ida’s invitation came as a shock. Four years had passed and Ida made no request to see any of us until now. A few times my mother invited her to our home but she always refused. Once I said to my mother, “Doesn’t Grandma miss us? Miss me? I am her granddaughter.”
“She hates me,” my mother said. “And since you’re my daughter she’s cold to you, too.”
“And why should she hate you so much?”
She bit her lip and seemed to be struggling with an answer. “Let’s just say no one was good enough for her son.”
“But why me? I’m half her son’s!”
“I don’t want to talk about it anymore!” she said and fled the room.
The call actually came from my father’s sister, Rosalind, who explained that Ida was gravely ill and wanted to see her. After Seymour died Rosalind moved in with Ida. My mother told me Rosalind’s fiancé was killed as a soldier in World War Two and afterwards she never showed interest in men. She rarely spoke to me and never hugged or kissed me. My mother noticed this and said, “Your aunt’s a bitter old maid. Think of her as ‘Aunt Prune Face’—but don’t call her that!” We giggled at the name.
I was troubled that Rosalind didn’t also invite me to say farewell to my grandmother. “I’m coming, too,” I told my mother.
“You better stay home.”
These words surprised and hurt me. “I demand to see her—she’s my grandmother!”
She placed her arm around me. “I was only thinking of you. It’s not pleasant to be around someone dying. But, of course, you should come.”
Aunt Franny was in our kitchen sipping coffee when the call came. Her reaction was different from mine. “None of us should go,” she said. “Why schlep there, Phyllis? What’s the point of seeing those farbisseneh women again?” She gave a nervous glance to me.
“Leave us, Karen,” my mother said. “I need to speak to your aunt in private.”
“What’s the big secret?” Any topic about my grandmother made me touchy, because she abandoned me. Not that she ever was gushing with love toward me. She used to treat me like our neighbor, Mrs. Rosenfeld—politely but not with feeling.
“Go!” my mother shouted.
I stomped away toward my bedroom. However, I didn’t close the door completely. I struggled to hear but I couldn’t make out much of the murmuring, something to do with money. Finally, I heard my aunt loud and clear: “You’re a fool, Phyllis, to think she’ll give you a penny! She feels no guilt!”
“It’s not that so much. I know she’s not rolling in dough. I hope she will …..” I strained to hear more but she spoke too softly.
But I heard my aunt say, “That’ll never happen, darling.”
My mother was so nervous that Aunt Franny offered to drive us in her big, old Pontiac. Usually we were chatterboxes together but we were silent. My aunt was probably concentrating on her difficult driving in the storm. My mother must’ve dreaded this visit, even if she thought she’d benefit from it. My feelings matched the turbulence of the day. Rain pounded on the windshield and the sluggish wipers hardly kept up with the rain, making it seem at times as if we were driving under water.
When I was younger I feared that King Neptune would drag us into the ocean and drown us, just for the fun of it. Maybe you’ve seen that painting of a sexy King Neptune, his arm around his beloved goddess. That wasn’t my Neptune, whose trident for me was a pitchfork and he was the Devil. But that was my childish belief, especially during fall and winter when the Atlantic Ocean was fierce.
We drove on busy Mermaid Avenue. I saw the billboard advertising the Steeplechase, which must have been there for years. I hated the picture of a boy with a toothy grin advertising the amusement park, which announced, “The Funny Place.” He seemed evil to me. As a child, my parents took me there against my will, promising me I’d have a great time. My mother managed to convince me to climb up with her on a mechanical horse for the fake horserace but I screamed from beginning to end. That was the last time my parents took me to Steeplechase Park. Years later I refused to go with friends, who loved the rides, the freak shows, the house of mirrors, and that terrifying parachute jump on the boardwalk. For me Coney Island was no fun, but a forbidding place.
When I was around six or seven I dared approach the gypsy enclosed in a glass booth at the penny arcade on the boardwalk. I thought this mannequin was real and for a dime she’d give me my fortune. I looked at the slim piece of paper and read: “Beware: Secrets will reveal themselves!” I ran to my mother, who was buying taffy on the boardwalk, and asked her what revealed meant. I handed her the paper. She stared at it, frowned, then crunched it into a ball. She tossed it in a trash-bin. “It’s a bunch of nonsense,” she said.
My stomach twisted when Aunt Franny made a turn onto 29th Street and drove eastward, toward the ocean. When we passed Surf Avenue I grabbed hold of my wool skirt like a security blanket. I was afraid to see an old woman, my grandmother. We approached King Neptune Arms. In the many years since I was there no one bothered to repair the chipped off nose of the ocean king on a stone medallion above the main door. It was a miserable-looking U-shaped brick building that once had its heyday in the Roaring Twenties.
At least that’s what Grandpa Seymour said about it. He also told me that the taller building next door, with fancy balconies and an enormous aqua blue cupola on top, was once the Half Moon Hotel and all the bigshots from the City stayed there, including an infamous gangster, who jumped off one of the balconies to his death. I only remembered it as an old age home, and in the summer white-haired people in wheelchairs sat outside.
Aunt Franny found a parking spot in front of the Half Moon, where a few old faces peered out from a wide window. After we left the car we made our way in wind and rain toward Ida’s building, my aunt and mother holding their plastic rain bonnets to their heads so they didn’t blow away. Despite my age I moved close to my mother and felt reassured by her wet coat against my knees. The ocean, so close, roared viciously.
When we entered the lobby we were hit with a musty smell and worse—urine. My aunt pinched her nose shut. Arm in arm we climbed the chipped marble steps up to the third floor. Because my mother and I remained frozen by the apartment door Aunt Franny knocked (apparently the doorbell was broken).
Rosalind opened the door and looked at us as if we had just arrived from Mars. She aged much since the funeral four years earlier. Her hair was gray and wiry and she seemed as if she might tilt over any moment. She used to stoop slightly, but her condition worsened. Once I asked my mother why Aunt Rosalind couldn’t stand straight and she said, “She has something wrong with her body called scoliosis.” That day I made myself stick straight and dared not look down until I tripped over a pair of shoes on the floor.
“Aren’t you going to ask us in?” my mother said to Rosalind.
Her dark eyes were on me and her lips twitched. I doubted scoliosis caused this.
“You probably don’t recognize Karen,” my mother said. “She’s fifteen now and a scholar in high school.”
Rosalind turned to my mother. “You should’ve known better than to bring her.”
My fear now turned to anger. “It was my idea to come since I thought I had the right to see my grandmother. She ought to want to see me!”
She stuck out her hands like a police officer stopping traffic. “Wait here. I’ll be right back.” She turned and left us at the open door that faced a dim, narrow hallway.
“This wasn’t a good idea,” Aunt Franny muttered.
“There’s no turning back now,” my mother said.
“Only her! No one else. Not the child!” I recognized my grandmother’s voice.
Aunt Franny clutched my arm. “Let’s you and me go to the corner deli and have a knish.”
I wrested my arm free. “My own grandmother refuses to see me. I’m going in and demand to know why!”
This time my mother grasped my arm so tightly it hurt. “Leave with your aunt.”
Aunt Franny put her arm around me. “Ida is dying and she’s touched in the head. You have to be adult about this and understand.”
I didn’t understand and tears were in my eyes. Rosalind already turned her back to me but I shouted at her, “You can hardly call yourself a human being, let alone an aunt. Neither can my so-called grandmother. She should be ashamed of herself—even if she’s dying!”
Rosalind didn’t bother to turn around to look at me.
Aunt Franny grabbed my trembling hand and tugged me toward the stairs then down the three flights of dirty marble steps and out the lobby doors. She kept her arm around me the whole way towards Mort’s Deli. It was only drizzling now but the wind was still strong. Withered leaves and trash whirled in the air. I pulled my wool beret over my ears.
It was crowded in the deli and I bumped into a man walking with a cane. Aunt Franny steadied him but he looked as if we assaulted him. Then she brought me to the counter. “Order yourself a delicious potato knish and a Coke. I’ll do the same. It’s my treat. Forget about those two old bats. They’re not worth it!”
We sat on high stools around a little table. I held my hot knish in my hand and had no appetite to eat it. My aunt bit into her knish with relish and stared at it as if it were a rare delicacy. Or maybe she was avoiding eye contact with me.
“Tell me why my grandmother and aunt hate me so much,” I said.
She coughed then sipped her Coke. Finally her eyes met mine. “It’s not you, really. They don’t get along with your mother.”
I narrowed my eyes at her. “And why is that? Did my mother do something bad—like cheat on my father?”
She stopped eating and drinking and now I knew the truth: my mother had an affair while married to my father. That explained it.
“It’s complicated,” she said.
“Did she or didn’t she?”
Her hand folded over mine. “There’s no avoiding the truth any longer. I begged your mother to tell you a few years ago, but she thought you were still too young.”
“Tell me what? I demand to know!”
People at other tables stared at us.
“I should start at the beginning to best explain this to you. Your father had cancer when he returned from overseas after the war and your mother didn’t know about it.”
“So—he didn’t want to worry her. What does that have to do with her having an affair?”
“Please, Karen, lower your voice.” She placed down her knish on its waxed paper wrapper and sipped her Coke. Finally in a soft voice she said, “It made him sterile.”
It didn’t dawn on me immediately how the word sterile related to me. Then the realization swept over me like the brutal wind outside. “I’m not his ----.”
“Please, Karen, don’t be angry with your mother.” Tears were in my aunt’s eyes. “You can’t totally blame her for what she did. He didn’t tell her. She wanted children.”
I left. I bounded up the block toward the boardwalk in defiance of wind and rain. Mine was a greater turbulence. Somewhere in the distance I heard my aunt calling me but I ignored her. I climbed the rickety wooden steps and entered the boardwalk. I rushed toward the guardrail facing the ocean. I felt deliriously satisfied that nature was in a violent mood. The steel-green waves of the Atlantic Ocean spewed its fury against the beach, much the way I wished I could thrash my own fury against the world.
Finally I was calm enough to notice my surroundings. Across the boardwalk sequined red letters spelled out Beachside Freak Show on a large sign above the entrance, advertising a five-year-old mother and child and a two-headed calf, and next to it was a shop with a fancy pink-lettered sign announcing Madame Dora’s Crystal Ball and Tarot Readings. The arcade probably did away with the mannequin gypsy—though she foretold the truth. Secrets did reveal themselves.
I noticed a man in the distance standing against the guardrail. He wore a fedora and overcoat, like what my father wore in winter. The sight of him made me shiver. He looked just like my father in a photo he took with my mother before I was born. My father, in that hat and coat, stood next to my mother, who wore a long wool coat with a fur collar and a silly hat with an ostrich feather. They had been posing here on this very boardwalk! The man was obviously wet and cold, moving back and forth in place. Finally he lifted his collar to protect his neck from the wind and began walking toward me. My father was not dead. This was kept secret from me too! We went to some old aunt or uncle’s funeral instead. He never died of cancer, though I remembered too well his ashen, gaunt face in the hospital.
When the man was close enough I knew he wasn’t my father. He looked nothing like him. His overcoat was shabby and his wool hat had a narrow rim—nothing like the expensive felt fedora my father liked to wear.
But my father was also not my father. I never had one. Somewhere perhaps he existed, having forgotten about me years before, or maybe he never knew I existed. I felt rage for my mother.
Her chest heaving, Aunt Franny entered the boardwalk. She waved at me. “Stay where you are!” she shouted.
With effort I lifted my arm to wave back. I had nowhere to flee.
During the ride home my mother broke the silence with a sickening laugh. “You were right, Fran. We shouldn’t have schlepped here. Ida has no intention of giving me a cent.” She opened her handbag. “Here’s what she gave me.” She removed the brooch and held it high enough for me to see from the back seat. “The ugly pin I gave her years ago. She said she never wore it and wanted to return to me, but was afraid of upsetting David. I guess she forgot to bring it to the funeral. Anyway, she was determined to return it to me before she died.” She dropped it back in her handbag. “And I was a fool to think … well, the brooch was a message and I got it loud and clear.”
My aunt and I remained quiet.
“Cat got your tongue, Franny?” my mother said.
“The weather’s bad,” my aunt answered somberly. “I just want to get home.”
I was fuming and let the boiling water of my words remain in the teapot—for now.
I don’t know why my mother kept that brooch. Maybe she forgot about it. Now I know why I kept it. I needed a reminder from time to time of my deplorable behavior toward her after the terrible revelation.
That night she tried to explain. All her young life she believed she’d find fulfillment through giving birth and motherhood. When she was engaged she’d watch lots of young women pushing baby carriages because the GIs had come home and babies were booming. Sometimes she’d elbow her fiancé and say, “Look at that beaming couple with their baby” and he’d remain quiet. Maybe he loved her so much he feared she’d refuse to marry him if she knew. “I would’ve married him anyway,” she told me. “I did love him and I’d agree to adopt a child. But I didn’t like him keeping that a secret. After a year and no baby I confronted him and that’s when he told me. I was so angry I thought of divorce but then I had this other idea and he’d have to live with it. I got a hold of a friend from high school who agreed ….”
“Stop, Mom!” I shouted. “It was convenient for you to also keep some secrets—from me! I demand to see my real father.”
“I can’t do that, Karen. That would upset his life. He’s married and the last time I heard from him he told me he and his wife were expecting a third child.”
“Well you damn well upset my life!” I ran out of the room.
I didn’t talk to her for weeks.
Aunt Franny did her best to convince me to forgive my mother. “It was foolish of her but then again I’m glad she did it,” she said. “Otherwise, we wouldn’t have you.”
“I’m better off dead!” I said but I didn’t mean it—partly it was anger and partly teenage rebelliousness.
She tried to hug me but I stiffened.
“I’m illegitimate—a bastard. No wonder my so-called father pretended I didn’t exist and my so-called grandmother and aunt hate me.”
“Your father loved you!”
“Don’t call him that!”
I left her and brooded. I was depressed and stopped caring about my appearance. I was a mess, not bothering to shower and fix my hair. I gained over twenty pounds. Dating was out of the question. Sometimes I’d not enter the high school but stand outside with the punks and smoke cigarettes. My mother dragged me to a therapist but not until I approached eighteen and left for Boston University did I take hold of myself.
Tears come to me often when I think of my mother because I regret that I never lost my grudge. I came home from college for holidays but as soon as I did I sought out friends. Later, when I was teaching high school and lived on my own I rarely invited her to my apartment or visited her in Canarsie. Just after I married your father I mellowed but by then she was ill and at the young age of fifty-two she had her fatal heart attack. I regret she never had the opportunity to know and love you.
I kept this brooch in the bottom of my sock drawer. Occasionally, especially on my mother’s birthday, I’d move away socks and look at the brooch as a sort of penance—as silly as that must sound. Often regret would overcome me and I’d be teary-eyed, like I am now.
I’m tired of being tormented by this pin. I waited too long to forgive my mother but she did hurt me and, well, it’s time to let go. If you want it it’s yours.