When I was very little, my mother used to sit in front of the television in the den, crying at soap operas and smoking cigarettes. Instead of napping, I would sneak down and wonder what it meant. Was my mother sad because of the TV show? Was it something else? Years later, I learned that my Grandma Emma had died during my mother’s girlhood. She’d fallen off the roof of their apartment building when hanging laundry. In college, I finally realized what that really meant.
As a child, I inhaled my mother’s pain like the stinging smell of ammonia. Many times I tried to comfort her—singing her nursery songs, slipping cards with big, messy hearts under her bedroom door, facing her on her lap and running my fingers through her curly hair. Changing a few words, I’d mimic what my father always said about the first time he saw her at a Hillel dance. “Your mother was the prettiest girl in the room.”
“Mommy is the prettiest girl in the room,” I said.
“No, my little Emmy is.” My mother hugged me tight and lied.
When she started seeing a psychiatrist I was in first grade. Sometimes my brother Josh had to pick me up after school. He was much older than me, a teenager, and pissed that he couldn’t hang out in the park with his friends. After plopping me in front of the television, Josh would go upstairs to his bedroom, so far away that I could barely hear his electric guitar.
Sometimes a high school girl named Linda came to get me. After lighting a cigarette from my mother’s stash of cartons behind the breakfast cereal, she would sit me at the kitchen table and we’d pore over her fashion magazines. The lingerie ads were my favorite. I’d stare with awe and fascination, wondering how my nickel-sized nipples would ever fill a bra. Linda wore a bra, the proud outlines of which protruded beneath her tight, bright tee shirts.
By the time I was in second grade, my mother stopped doing laundry, stopped preparing meals, and, eventually, stopped getting out of bed.
At first my father yelled:
“Where’s my breakfast? Goddammit Helen, you know how busy I am. I’ve got this case going on and Stephen Bollenbach up my ass.”
“You didn’t go to the dry cleaners? What the hell do you do all day?. . . . No! I can’t wear my blue suit on a Tuesday. Tuesday is my brown suit day. You know that.”
But as my mother got worse, my father changed. Pressed against the closed door of their bedroom, I could hear his cracking voice: “Helen? Honey. Please, please roll over. At least lift your head. At least look at me.” There were long sweeps of silence, broken only by my father’s soft laments. “Please Helen. Please.”
Finally, my mother spent two months at the world-famous McLean Hospital in Massachusetts, though her psychiatrist, I would later learn, wanted her hospitalized in Manhattan. It was my father, always a sucker for top-rank status, who had insisted on McClean. To take over domestic duties, he hired a Black woman named Mrs. Jackson through an agency. Mrs. Jackson was an attentive, nice and reasonably warm person, but not the deeply sympathetic type. When I cried about missing my mother she said, “Crying again? A big girl like you?” At night, I lay in bed, clutching my stomach, sobbing until my head hurt, pounding my ribs as if I could break up the pain like a block of ice.
One night, I tried to console myself by spying on Mrs. Jackson. Barefoot, I tiptoed down the carpeted steps—past the big mirrors in the front hall and the oriental rug, past the shadow of the chandelier above the oval dining room table, past the swinging door and into the kitchen with its clean counters, closed cabinets and sloshing dishwasher. Outside the den, I knelt and hid. There was Mrs. Jackson, drinking a can of soda, eating pretzels from the bag, and sitting in front of the same television set my mother used to watch.
On the screen a pretty blonde woman in a housecoat was ironing a handkerchief. There was a knock on the door and in came the plumber. But he wasn’t really the plumber. He was—as I learned after a commercial break, when a deep voice announced a return to the night’s special movie—”The Boston Strangler.” Now the pretty woman was naked and gasping, tied to her bed with her own panty hose. For a moment, the Boston Strangler stared at himself in her nearby mirror, his dark eyes big and mysterious. He had tight black leather gloves on his hands. He mounted the pretty woman and placed his gloves on her shrieking mouth. The pretty woman thrashed and moaned in vain delirium. The Boston Strangler’s neck was taut. His teeth were shiny and clenched.
“What on earth!” I didn’t even realize I was screaming until Mrs. Jackson emerged from the den. “How long have you been out here?” She loomed over me, furrowing her forehead and placing her hands on her wide hips. “Come on now. Get off that floor. Get yourself upstairs.”
I grabbed her leg, my heart drumming wildly. “No—please—let me stay!”
“Bedtime.” As if I were just a little laundry, Mrs. Jackson scooped me off the floor, swung open the kitchen door, and carried me upstairs. I flailed and cried so loudly that Josh poked his head out of his bedroom door. “What the hell is wrong with her?”
“Watch your mouth!” Mrs. Jackson tightened her grip around my kicking legs. “Just finish your studying so your daddy doesn’t come home and holler at the both of us.”
Peeling my arms off her neck, she deposited me on the mattress, forcing me to lie down, tucking the blankets around me. “Don’t know what you were thinking, sneaking up on me like that.”
I threw off the covers and sat up. “Please, Mrs. Jackson. I promise. I won’t ever do it again. But please, please don’t go away from me.” My face was hot with tears, the mucus dripping from each nostril.
Mrs. Jackson folded her arms across her waist and cocked her head, debating whether to leave me or miss another murder scene. Eventually, she sat down heavily on my bed. Her eyes were large and tired. With one hand, Mrs. Jackson lifted my chin. With the other, she reached for a tissue on my night table and covered my nose.
“Blow,” she said. I did so loudly. “One more time.” I blew again. Mrs. Jackson crumpled the tissue on the night table and took another one to dab my eyes. Then she put her arm around me and started rocking. “All right. But just this once. You hear me? I’ll stay till you fall asleep.” And God bless her, she did.
True to my word, I never left my bed again to spy on Mrs. Jackson. Instead, I became a compulsive reader, busying myself with books into the wee hours of the night. After plowing through all the Beverly Cleary books, all the Carolyn Haywood books, and all the Laura Ingalls Wilder books, I learned about Sydney Taylor’s All-of-a-Kind Family from a sensitive school librarian. The series featured five Jewish sisters on the Lower East Side. The girls wore identical clothing. They slept in the same bedroom. Their Mama was always home, cooking, cleaning, darning their stockings. Their apartment was tiny but full of love and warmth. How I envied those sisters! How I longed to climb into their cramped apartment under their mother’s watchful eye.
I read in a makeshift tent of blankets, knees bent, my head under the covers, holding a flashlight that I had pilfered from the hardware closet in the basement near the laundry room. My precaution was unnecessary. Mrs. Jackson didn’t care what I did so long as I stayed in my room and didn’t scream.
And my father didn’t notice because he always went straight to Josh’s bedroom after work. There he’d find my brother playing the guitar or reading porn or splayed out empty-headed on the floor—in short, doing anything except his homework. The cacophony of rage would begin. “Goddamnit!” . . . “Asshole!” . . . “Failure!” . . . “Shithead!” Their outbursts thumped against my bedroom wall.
Then, one night my father noticed the dim illumination under my door. “Emily?” He knocked softly and opened without waiting for an answer. In the pale shaft of hallway light, he was short and stocky. Though still wearing his black pin-stripe suit pants and white button-down shirt, he had no jacket, tie, or shoes. His gray stockinged feet were wide and blocky. “Honey—where are you?”
I peeked out from under my tented blankets. “Hi Daddy.”
“What are you doing awake?”
“Reading,” I said tentatively, and then, sensing an opportunity for approval, added, “I read a lot of novels, Daddy.”
“Ah,” my father put a half empty glass on top of my bureau, rubbing the bottom of his face which, even in the dim light, I could see was thick with stubble. Except for on his head, my father had a ridiculous amount of hair—so much so that when wearing a bathing suit, he looked rather like an ape. “That shows how smart you are.”
Walking over, he sat down on my bed, which sagged a little to receive him. Since my mother’s hospitalization, my father had gained weight. His undershirt bulged between his bottom shirt buttons; his pants rose, straining around his thighs. For a moment, I studied his bushy forearms, wondering why the follicles couldn’t be redirected to his head where they were most needed. Then I pulled out the second volume of All-of-a-Kind Family, shining my flashlight on the cover. I had just re-read the Yom Kippur chapter, in which the sisters pool all their savings on flowers and then direct their toddler brother Charlie to deliver them to their fasting mother in Shul. I imagined the tousled-haired boy holding a white bouquet practically as big as he was, walking tentatively down the aisle towards his beaming Mama. Little Charlie would be the only male character in sight.
I pointed to the pictures on the cover. “That’s Ella, the oldest, and then there is Henny, Sarah—she’s my favorite—and Charlotte, and Gertie. And this here is little Charlie, the baby. They live on the Lower East Side. They are poor, but really happy.”
My father gave an angry grunt. “Well, that’s a load of crap! Being poor is hell. Why do you think I work so hard?” From his mouth came warm, sweet breaths of Scotch. “So you and your brother would never know what it’s like to be hungry, to have to move out in the middle of night because your pitiful parents can’t pay the rent.”
“I’m sorry, Daddy.”
“That’s not the point Emily.” My father sighed, staring at his palms in his lap. And then he did the unthinkable. My father covered his face, his shoulders shook, and he started making high pitched whimpering sounds. I felt paralyzed, a hot wave in my chest. Was I supposed to say something—do something? Not a single one of my chapter books had ever featured such a scene. As far as I knew no father in the history of Western literature had ever cried on top of his daughter’s quilted bedspread.
Finally, I crawled out from under my sheets, put my arm around my father’s neck, and pulled his jiggling body close to mine. He patted my dangling hand, making a gurgling sound. “I miss your mother so much. I just can’t stand it.”
I don’t know how long we sat like that, my arm around my father, his warm hand on my hand. Maybe a few minutes, maybe more. Eventually his heaving subsided, and his breath regularized. My father straightened his meaty shoulders and leaned away, forcing me to drop my arm. “Well,” he said, blowing into his handkerchief. “At least I’ll see her this weekend in Boston.”
Boston? Until that moment, I had no idea that the McClean Hospital was anywhere other than a place called Massachusetts, which was too far away for me to visit her. I grabbed my father’s elbow. “But the Boston Strangler lives in Boston!”
“The Boston Strangler. He finds pretty women and chokes them to death.”
“Yes, Emily. Everyone knows that.”
“Well, what if he kills Mommy in the hospital?”
The images whooshed through my mind. My mother sleeping in some foreign bedroom. The black-eyed man with his tight black gloves. His tight black gloves around her soft thin neck. Her head convulsing. Her naked arms and legs flapping. Hard and fast like she could fly. And then slower and slower until they were stone still. The Boston Strangler smiled at himself in a nearby mirror. He removed his black gloves and put them in his pocket.
“Stop, you’re hurting me!” My father wrenched away his arm, the hair of which I’d begun yanking in my terror. “You’re being ridiculous. That man is dead—or at least,” he tilted his head, remembering a random detail, “probably dead.”
I felt my ribs collapse. “What do you mean probably?”
“I mean—Oh my God I’m so tired.” My father let out a long, exasperated sigh. Stretching his head back, he massaged his temples. “It’s so hard to sleep without your mother beside me.” Lost in thought he began stroking a little circle on my bedspread.
“What do you mean, ‘probably’? What do you mean Daddy?” I grew desperate, shaking his knee.
Pressing his hands against my mattress, my father slowly stood up. The bottom of his pants descended back over his bare ankles. “I mean they thought they caught the guy, and he was—if I remember correctly—stabbed to death in jail—but then there was some doubt about his real identity.”
“So he’s still alive—the Boston Strangler?”
He shrugged. “Unlikely but not impossible.”
“But is Mommy’s safe? Will she be murdered in the hospital?”
My father laughed. “I certainly hope not, given what they charge!”
“So, Mommy won’t die?”
My father looked at me flatly. “Of course Mommy will die. Everybody dies, Emily.”
He was not one for sugar-coating the ugly truths of life. Were we Christian, there would have been no Santa Claus in our house. A few years later, my father was the first person to inform me about the Holocaust. “Now here’s a novel for you,” he said, handing me Elie Wiesel’s Night.
“But Mommy won’t die soon, right? Not for a long, long, long, time.” I was quoting what my mother herself had told me after I’d learned about her mother’s fall.
At this my father snapped. “Probably not, Emily, but I don’t know the future. I am not God!” His head shook like a bobble toy.
I must have looked terrified, because my father’s expression changed. He gazed down at me kindly, patting my hair. “Don’t worry. The chance of your mother dying young is miniscule.”
“What you mean?”
“I mean—” my father scanned the roof of his head for an answer— “It’s even less likely than your brother finishing his homework.”
After he left and I sobbed so hard I thought I’d vomit, I decided to pray to God. The problem was that we had barely been introduced. Once I’d ask my mother if God’s last name was “dammit.” When she burst out laughing, I knew the question’s answer. I’d learned a little more from reading All-of-a-Kind Family. “The Lord He is God,” everyone shouted at the end of the Yom Kippur chapter. In my children’s dictionary “Lord” was defined as “King.”
The rest of my education had come from Mrs. Jackson. On the night she arrived, when we’d sat down for our first supper, she closed her eyes, bowed her neck, and clasped her fingers together like a small dark ball. Barely moving her lips, she whispered a few words.
“Are you praying, Mrs. Jackson?”
“I’m trying to.”
I waited, sitting on my hands, rolling my butt over my doughy palms. Mrs. Jackson pressed her lips to her clasped hands, her clasped hands to her heart, and looked up, her eyes glowing.
“Were you praying to God?”
Mrs. Jackson blinked in surprise. “Of course! Who else?” She had a short, gray-flecked afro, pierced ears but no earrings, and a small golden cross necklace, that bounced a little in the hollow under her throat. She looked as old and wise as a grandmother.
“What do you say to him?”
Pulling the folded paper napkin from under her fork, Mrs. Jackson shook it open, lay it on her lap and, indicating with her hand, waited for me to do the same. I complied.
“I say thank you for giving me this food.”
“But you made the food, Mrs. Jackson.”
“True.” Mrs. Jackson spread one hand on each side of her place-setting. Her nails were short, plain and pinkish. “I prepared it. I cooked it. But did I plant the seed of these here carrots? No, I did not. Did I grow the potatoes mashed up on your plate? No, I did not. Did I raise the chicken and butcher it? No, I did not. Other people did that work. And all of it, the seed, the plants, the chicken, the people—they are all the work of God.” Her fingers rose and fell, as if playing the piano.
“What is butchering?”
Lifting her fork and knife, Mrs. Jackson pierced her chicken breast. “That’s when you kill an animal and chop it up.” She cut off a juicy chunk and started chewing.
That was a murdered bird lying on my white, blue-rimmed plate. Why hadn’t I ever realized that before? Poor thing. I wondered how much blood had burst from its throat when they sliced it. I pushed my cutlet to the far side of the plate, taking a big forkful of mashed potatoes.
“How does God work?”
“Don’t talk with your mouth full.”
I swallowed and asked again.
Mrs. Jackson wiped her mouth daintily. “By doing good.”
“How does he do good?” I imagined a technical response, an invisible system of pulleys and levers and forklifts in the great machinery of the world.
“Through the grace of Jesus Christ.”
“Jesus Christ?” I’d heard the name in passing. My father sometimes yelled it out loud, and my neighbors sang about him when they went Christmas caroling. They stood in porch-lit semicircles around the snowy lawns of nearby houses, but never ours.
Mrs. Jackson put down her utensil. “Forget I mentioned him.”
She reached over and squeezed my elbow. “You’re Jewish, Emily.” Her low-toned voice had a touch of sympathy.
“So, your people don’t believe in Jesus.”
“Is that bad?”
Mrs. Jackson skewered three round carrots, like a baby’s stacking toy. “That is none of my business. Now eat some chicken if you want to have dessert. Don’t think I don’t see what you’re doing on that plate.”
Jesus had me completely confused. If everyone was supposed to believe in him then I was bad if I did not. But if Jews were not supposed to believe in him then I was bad if I did. None of the characters in All-of-a-Kind Family ever mentioned Jesus, which was potentially bad. But they did talk about God, which was potentially good. In the novel’s Yom Kippur chapter everyone prayed to God to help them “help those less fortunate than themselves.” Wasn’t my mother less fortunate than myself? She was the one in the hospital. She was the one the Boston Strangler might kill.
I tried to concoct a prayer to cover all my bases. “Dear Lord, you are king and you are God and maybe you are Jesus. But if it is bad for me to talk about Jesus, then I take it back. Please God be good to my mother in the hospital. Please don’t let my mother be strangled. Please don’t let my mother be killed. Please don’t let my mother die young. Amen.”
From then on, every night, after reading until my eyes ached, I would fold my hands on top of my book the way Mrs. Jackson did when she prayed at the table. I whispered my incantation, concentrating on each word. And the longer this ritual went on, and the more my mother’s phone calls proved that she had yet to be murdered, the more convinced I grew that my prayer was saving her and that I had to offer it again, every night, the exact same way as the night before. God, I decided, demanded my perfection. Sometimes I reached the end of the prayer and panicked about having missed one of the sentences. Sometimes I worried about having said something out of order. Sometimes I questioned the sufficiency of my sincerity. Then I would have to go back to the beginning, pausing at every word, feeling my tongue tap my teeth or my vocal cords vibrate to know that I had indeed articulated the right sound at the right time so as to spare my precious mother a gruesome death.
Towards the end of April, my father picked me up from school for the first time in my life. I had never seen him in a better mood. He swung my hand as we walked home in the gleaming sunshine, past luxury cars, past bursting cherry blossoms, past the widely spaced variety of big brick, stucco and wood panel homes. There’s a surprise inside,” he said when we came to our own big white house with its black shutters and sloping lawn.
In the den was my mother, wearing her blue blouse and black slacks, propped up in her old seat on the couch, having reclaimed it from Mrs. Jackson. The latter stood in the doorway holding a tray with half a sandwich, a banana, and a cup of coffee. I pushed Mrs. Jackson aside, making her tray rattle as I jumped into my mother’s arms. Her hair was cut shorter than I’d ever seen it and her neck bones were pale and prominent. Greedily I nestled against her thin round breasts, clutching her back tightly, straining to hear the soft tick tock of her heart.
That day was perhaps the happiest in my childhood. My mother listened indulgently as I showed her my best book reports and narrated all the adventures of All-of-a-Kind Family. Instead of going into Manhattan, my father took his yellow legal pads into the high-shelved library at the other end of the house. Periodically we heard him shouting at his associates on the telephone. For the first time in ages, Josh stayed home after school, seated on the other side of my mother, his arm slung around her shoulder like he was her boyfriend. My mother ran her fingers through my brother’s long black ringlets. “Look at how handsome you are!”
Mrs. Jackson set the china dishes and best silverware on the dining room table. Back and forth she went through the swinging kitchen door, bringing us drinks, salad, biscuits and apple sauce. Finally, after depositing a steaming platter of pot roast made from my mother’s favorite recipe, Mrs. Jackson disappeared into the kitchen until we finished eating. Though my mother swallowed only a few forkfuls, she called out to the closed door: “This is delicious, Gloria—so much better than when I make it.” I had chocolate pudding and whipped cream for dessert. For the first time since my mother’s absence, I fell asleep before midnight.
When I swung open the kitchen door the next morning, Mrs. Jackson was in front of the open refrigerator, reaching for a bottle of milk. This was, I knew, her last day on the job.
“Where’s my mom?”
What did that mean? Had something terrible happened? I looked at Mrs. Jackson with her gray-flecked hair and creased neck. She was standing in the very place where my mother should have been.
Plunking the milk on the table, Mrs. Jackson sat down, poured herself a bowl of cereal, and nodded for me to do the same. “Time to learn to do that for yourself.”
I obliged, lost in a blur of fears. The cereal scattered on the table, a little landing in my lap.
With half-closed eyelids, Mrs. Jackson gave me a long languid stare. “Now see what you’ve done! You got to clean that up.” She returned to her own cereal, lifting and lowering the spoon methodically.
Several moments passed. I couldn’t move. Mrs. Jackson raised her head, glaring. “Didn’t you hear? I said clean that up.” She pointed her spoon and shook it. “I ain’t doing it.”
Then Mrs. Jackson stood up, rinsed her bowl in the sink, clankingly inserted it into the dishwasher, pushed open the swinging door, and walked out of my life forever. Back and forth the door swept, squeaking softly.
I waited, praying to hear my mother’s voice in the upstairs hallway, to hear her footsteps on the stairs. I prayed to see the kitchen door swing open and watch her beautiful body appear before me. Outside a car rumbled down the street. It was a sunny spring day. The birds sang with joy.
Inside, the house was quiet and still. I got up and stood before the kitchen door. The swinging had come to a dead stop. The cracks in the door’s off-white paint looked like scars.
Susan Celia Greenfield teaches English literature at Fordham University. She has published many scholarly works about early female novelists (especially Jane Austen) and is editor of Sacred Shelter: Thirteen Journeys of Homelessness and Healing (2019). Her short fiction has appeared in Room, Cimarron Review, Literary Mama, The Stockholm Review of Literature, and Cleaver Magazine. She is currently completing a novel, from which “Child’s Prayer” is excerpted.