After teaching literature and writing at Western Michigan University, Clare Goldfarb now lives and writes in Atlanta, Georgia. Her work has appeared in academic journals and literary magazines including Lilith, Entropy, The Lowestoft Chronicle, On the Premises, and The Jewish Literary Journal.
“Just remember he’s family!” Mom said when she invited her younger brother, aka my Uncle Murray, to dinner along with whomever he was married to at the time. He always accepted, and he always brought things for our family to read such as far left political pamphlets and items from obscure newspapers that my New York TIMES reading father used as lining for the cage, where Louie, our parakeet, hopped and chattered.
Uncle Murray was a non-card-carrying Communist during World War II and most of the Cold War. He believed that the U.S. government’s main function was to hatch plots with the sole purpose of “getting” Murray Rothman. If the U.S. were ever to bomb its own citizens, a distinct possibility as far as he was concerned, then ground zero would be his dental office on Fort Washington Avenue in the Bronx.
Despite the aroma of my mother’s roasting chicken wafting through the house, family visits went badly because my father and Murray never got along with each other. The day before a visit Mom tried to negotiate for peace. She called Murray and emphasized the forbidden topics: politics and food. For days before that, she told my dad to ignore Murray. “Don’t let him get under your skin.”
Neither of them paid the slightest attention to her pleas, and her successes at reconciliation and peace were minimal. Her failures were colossal, and the two men argued at every family gathering.
I have to admit that I looked forward to hearing Murray hold forth on one of his two favorite topics, politics or food. My uncle was a health food devotee long before the reign of King Kale. Although he ate everything in sight at our dinner table and always had a candy bar in his pocket, he had an opinion on every food group and he swallowed vitamin pills by the handful.
A typical dinner conversation might go like this.
“Vitamin K is the best protection we have against radiation. Seedless grapes—that’s the perfect food. They’re high in Vitamin K, and we’d better be ready because “it” is coming.” Murray warned. (“It” was, of course, nuclear war.)
My uncle got most of his information from Carlton Fredericks, the host of a popular radio program on nutrition during the 1950’s. At dinner he liked to quote snippets from Fredericks’ shows to my dad, a doctor, who believed in the powers of modern medicine and a meat and potatoes diet—with an occasional apple or grapefruit.
“Rabbit food,” Dad sneered at salads. Vitamin pills? For the record, he considered them worthless, but many years after those dinners, I discovered that he made his patients take Vitamins C and E during pre- and post-operative periods.
“Helps the blood to clot better,” he mumbled. “Wounds heal neater too,” he added, and he never admitted to Murray his conversion to the two vitamins.
My uncle had no problem sharing his opinion of each course my mother served. Dinner was often chicken, and, as the guest at our table, he got the platter first and helped himself liberally to Dad’s favorite white meat. My brother and I divided the rest.
“Chicken has hidden fat, especially dark meat.” Murray announced as the platter minus the white meat landed by my father.
When he heard the “chicken has hidden fat” line, Dad looked at Murray and snarled, “Who said so?”
“What does he know?”
“He has a Ph.D. in nutrition,” Murray said as soon as he had swallowed his first piece of chicken.
“A Ph.D.? A Ph.D.? That stands for phoo and dreck!” Dad shouted out the words and enjoyed saying them.
Murray who did not relish being on the receiving end of any joke, bad or good, defended his hero even after his downfall. In the early 1960’s, Carlton Fredericks was involved in a law suit which questioned the worth of the products advertised on his program. My father was elated; he cut out newspaper clippings and bought every magazine that covered the story. The next time Murray visited, and before he could get his coat off, Dad handed him a stack of papers.
“That’s your boy, your big shot PH and D boy,” he said triumphantly.
That visit was the last one for almost a year. There were several other long spells when Murray didn’t visit our house, but my mother kept in touch. She phoned him or his wife once a week, and she was on excellent terms with all three wives even after the first two became exes.
The first wife was Dolly who was barely five feet tall, and about a size 2. She was the only spoiled child of a professional gambler and a mother who had a neurotic compulsion about dirt. She took her husband’s money from him the minute he came home and washed the paper bills in Ivory Flakes. The coins she boiled. She also saw to it that Dolly got everything she ever wanted.
By the time Murray met Dolly, the gambler dad was dead of a heart attack. Mother and daughter were living off the remnants of life insurance policies and Dolly’s earnings as a receptionist. Her mother who had been an invalid long before the gambler’s heart attack, washed Dolly’s salary every week.
After they married, Murray, Dolly, and Dolly’s mother set up an apartment in the same building where Murray had his office. Dolly quit her job and continued her old habits. She only bought clothes at the “best” shops and never on sale; she ordered groceries from the fanciest store in New York—and had them delivered to their apartment. Murray was as big a spender as his wife, but what really bothered my mother was the way Dolly set a table.
“Whatever they didn’t finish at a meal, they’d throw into the garbage, even the bread and butter. When I said something, Mrs. Rhinelander (Dolly’s mother), said that food spoils, and she looked at me as if I was the crazy one. When they came to our house—with that woman—God forbid that she should stay home alone, she barely touched the food.”
Dolly’s mother dominated her daughter’s household, even after the births of her two grandsons. When the children were still toddlers, Murray began to think that there had to be a better way to live than with a helpless wife and an interfering mother-in-law. By the time the younger boy was three, divorce was inevitable.
Dolly got custody of the boys, and together with Dolly’s mother, they stayed in the same apartment, furnished, of course, with “the best of everything.” Murray moved downstairs one flight which meant his office was on the first floor, his bachelor home on the third floor, and his ex-family on the fourth.
Murray paid alimony and child support until the youngest child was 18; he also avoided his ex-family as much as he could and cursed every dollar that he spent on them. Since Dolly still refused to shop at discount stores, and since she still threw away leftovers, the money wasn’t enough. She went back to work. Mrs. Rhinelander suddenly regained her health and got a job as a salesperson in Lohmann’s department store where she had to handle unwashed money every day.
In spite of the added income, Dolly ran short and called Murray at least once a month for something. She came to his office, and when they got old enough, the boys came—always and only for money. Murray fought with Dolly in front of patients, over the phone, in front of the apartment building, and before his sons who told their aunt everything when they visited our home. My mom listened, and she never sent the boys home without a few dollars tucked into their coat pockets.
When Richard was in high school and Kenny entered junior high, Murray introduced my parents to Arla, a fellow radical whom he met at a Socialist club meeting. Arla, who was short, dark, and stocky wore slacks, and she had pierced ears. Mom did not wear slacks. She also disapproved of pierced ears.
“Only gypsies and girls who aren’t ‘nice’ pierce their ears,” was her conviction, and the words she said to me when I wanted to have my ears pierced. Despite her pierced ears, Arla was a nice woman, and she was not a gypsy.
She shared most of my uncle’s opinions. Like him, she had strong opinions about food, but unlike him, she wasn’t a hypocrite. When she came for dinner, she didn’t eat a mouthful of my mother’s meals. She came to the table and said, “Nothing for me, thanks!” at the same time that she swung a large brown paper sack onto the table from which she would remove a cucumber, a carrot, a piece of celery, an apple, a piece of cheese, a hard-boiled egg, and a large black and red thermos bottle with some liquid in it.
“Caffeine is bad for the digestion,” she said as my mother poured the coffee, and she poured whatever it was from her thermos into a cup.
Dinner with Arla was very crunchy. She brought her own knife to the table, and she methodically peeled, cut, or diced her food onto a plate. She then ate it with her fingers. By this time, my dad was deeply immersed in his own food, and my mother was reduced to silence. As we watched her heavily ringed fingers cut cucumbers or apples and listened to her chew the food she prepared, my brother and I were round eyed with fascination.
“You should chew every mouthful 32 times, once for each tooth in your mouth,” she told us. It’s called Fletcherizing your food.”
(Horace Fletcher, (1849-1919) was to Arla what Carlton Fredericks was to my uncle. He touted a weight loss diet of chewing food but not swallowing it.)
When the meal was over, Arla wiped her knife on a damask napkin and placed it back in the brown paper sack. Next, she emptied the peelings and scrapings from her vegetables and fruits into that sack along with the egg shells. She explained to our silent, staring family, “Mulch for my garden.”
Since they were married for less than a year, there were only a few meals and not too many conversations with Arla. Echoing Murray, her topics included the American fascist government, the surveillance she was sure she and Murray lived under, and the utopian socialist brotherhood they both espoused.
Murray had a soul sister in Arla, but like his first wife, Dolly, she drove him crazy with her complaints about money. They never had enough, and she wanted him to either work harder or stop paying alimony so that she could quit her job and have a baby. He had already seen half a dozen lawyers about the alimony payments, and those appointments almost always resulted in increased payments for Dolly.
“He pays child support to children he never sees and alimony to that silly wife,” Arla complained to my mother in the kitchen where she helped to wash the dishes from which she never ate.
“They are his children,” Mom said.
“It’s just a biological attachment—meaningless.” Arla answered.
One Sunday, Murray came for dinner and told us that Arla had left him. Since there were no children, there was a quick annulment. Arla never visited us again, but my mother called her fairly regularly for a few years.
“Why do you call her?” I asked Mom.
“Who else has she got?”
“But why you? You’re nothing to her.”
“She was married to my brother.”
“That’s ‘was,” Mom, ‘was.’ Besides you don’t even like her.”
Her eyebrows would go up. “Why do I have to like her? She lives alone, and she’s not that bad.”
As the years passed, the calls to Arla became less frequent. She spoke to my mother about going to New Mexico to live on a commune. By then she was close to 60, and soon after that last call, she faded from our lives.
For a few years after Arla left him, Murray substituted psychoanalysis for a wife. He decided that he had suffered a deprived childhood, and he drove my mother crazy with his accusations of parental neglect.
“Mom never wanted me,”
“Not true. She adored you.”
“No! “Whenever she got mad at me, she told me I was an afterthought, an unwanted child.”
“I don’t believe you.”
“Why not? You were Pops’ favorite. And to Mama, Harry could do nothing wrong.”
“You were always getting into trouble!”
“My analyst said I got into trouble so that I could get attention; otherwise, nobody ever paid any attention to me.”
“Everyone paid attention!”
“I never had piano lessons like you did!”
“You had a trumpet AND a trombone!”
“It’s not the same thing.”
“How is it not the same thing? Murray, stop it!” My mother, who never yelled at anyone, was, by this time, yelling.
“See! See! Just like her, you pick on me!”
“My mom is right!” Listening in to this conversation, I had to interrupt.
Murray stared at me. “You’ve got a chip on your shoulder!”
My mother was furious. “Chip? How has she got a chip? She’s 15 years old.”
“So what? By five years, she was what she is now. My analyst says that after five years of age, there’s not much you can do to change anyone.”
And so the arguments went round and round. Murray often phoned to tell Mom the analyst’s latest pronouncement. She listened, no matter how angry or how disgusted she got with him.
During one long phone call, he explained why he picked Dolly for his first wife. By that time, when he started discussing his marriages, my mother could tune him down, not out, but down. She said to him in response to his query: “Do you know why I married Dolly?”
“No, Murray, I don’t know why you married Dolly, but I think you’re going to tell me.”
“I married Dolly because she was the exact opposite of Mama. Mama was tall and clever, so I married someone who was small and helpless.”
“You fell for Dolly the first time you saw her. You thought she was the cutest thing.”
“But that had nothing to do with why I married her. My analyst says I married her because I wanted to cut the umbilical cord to Mama and show her I was capable of going out on my own.”
Unfortunately, my dad, who didn’t believe in psychiatry, was listening to that call. He shouted, “You didn’t cut the umbilical cord! A real doctor did that!”
“Real doctors? Real doctors? Real doctors don’t know the first thing about how to make people well except cut them open and give them drugs!”
And so it went any time Murray used those fighting words, “my analyst says. . . .”
Once when Murray was with us for dinner, he got going on the “why I married Dolly” explanation. Mom interrupted, “All right, already! I understand why you married Dolly, but what about Arla?”
“I knew you’d ask that, and my analyst and I have talked about it.” Murray smiled. “I married Arla because she was the exact opposite of Dolly.”
The answer bewildered my mother. “The exact opposite of Dolly? But you said Dolly was the exact opposite of Mama, and Arla is nothing like Mama.”
“You only think they were nothing alike because you don’t know what it was like to be brought up as an afterthought.”
Mom started to speak, but Murray stopped her. “No, let me finish. Mama didn’t want me, but once she had me, she held on and tried to make me as dependent on her as she could.”
“That is absolutely---“
“True!” Murray finished his sister’s sentence. “She kept me in short pants when the other kids were in long pants. I had to beg her for my first haircut. She made me keep a curfew when I was in high school.”
“Harry and I had curfews too! How did it hurt? Do you realize you are making no sense?” My mother was anxious to stop this argument before my dad weighed in.
“I make a lot of sense. Mama tied me to her apron strings, and that’s what Arla wanted to do. She wanted me to give an accounting of every nickel I spent.”
“After Dolly I would have thought you’d be grateful to have someone like that.”
“That’s the point.” Murray shouted. “After Dolly, I married the exact opposite! Now you see I’m right.”
Mom looked into Murray’s beaming, red face and said nothing more because in battles with Murray, she always lost.
The psychoanalysis lasted about four years. When Murray married wife number three, he stopped going to his analyst. Hilda was tall, sturdily built, a super cook, seamstress, housekeeper, and accountant which occupation she had worked at successfully since her first and only husband’s death. She was uninterested in either politics or vitamin pills. She was nothing like Arla or Dolly and as close a replica of Murray’s mother, Clara, that one could find on earth, let alone the north Bronx.
My mother got along with Hilda as well as she did with both Dolly and Arla. She was happy for Murray who prospered in every way under his wife’s care. His practice improved, his home sparkled, and so did he. When he came to dinner with Hilda, he managed to get through entire meals without fighting with my dad, and after one Sunday dinner, he told Mom how much he enjoyed the visit.
That was when Mom said to me, “You know I have to bite my tongue to keep from telling Murray how much Hilda resembles Mama, but if I say something, it could spoil things. I hope she stays with him.”
She did, and as she grew older, she even developed high blood pressure, the disease that led to Clara’s death, but unlike Clara, she took better care of herself, and she and Murray lived happily ever after.
This website uses marketing and tracking technologies. Opting out of this will opt you out of all cookies, except for those needed to run the website. Note that some products may not work as well without tracking cookies.Opt Out of Cookies