Sometimes I thought of it as war reparations. On the outwardly civil but quietly vicious battlefield of my parents’ divorce, I had been the clear loser.
Excerpted from edited by Michele Filgate (Simon & Schuster, April 2019). Reprinted with permission.
“Would you like this top?” My mother holds out an animal-print blouse with the price tag still on. It’s something I wouldn’t be caught dead in and she likely knows it, but still she’s eager for me to take it, to receive it from her. “I just bought it,” she says, “but maybe it would be better on you.”
When I was fifteen, my mother met a widower who let her know early on he’d prefer not to marry a woman with kids. My mother did a decent impression of a childless woman in a variety of ways. When she bought things for my sister and me, she would take us aside and whisper, “Go look under your bed—I left something there for you,” so my stepfather wouldn’t know.
And so, at eighteen, putting myself through school, I felt sorry for myself, and as consolation, awarded myself a small amount of financial aid from my stepbrother’s bountiful change collection. What was the chance he’d notice a few coins missing here and there, anyway?
I was skimming the change for the M32 bus, which I rode each workday from Penn Station to the Book of the Month Club, where I had a summer job that would help me pay for my next semester: Fall 1984. I traveled into the city on the 6:47 a.m. from Oceanside, Long Island, and back on the 5:43 p.m., with my mother’s husband, Bernard—a miserable human being, a farbissener, my grandmother said. Every morning I was confronted by his ulcer breath and beady eyes, magnified behind thick, intense prescription Porsche aviators, at an hour when I found it hard to focus at all, let alone smile—a complaint he lodged against me with my mother. It was obvious that Bernard wasn’t happy about having to share his ride with me, either. There was a tension about his silence. Not only didn’t I want to talk to him, I was afraid to. He had a temper. I worried that anything I said might make him erupt, and so on those rides, I mostly pretended to sleep.
This is the terminology we used when we referred to Bernard: “He has a temper.” That’s what we called it when he threw a glass serving bowl filled with spaghetti at his son’s head, giving him a concussion; when he threw a wine glass at my mother and it shattered on the floor after bouncing off the side of her face. That’s what we called it when he dragged my thirteen-year-old sister down the stairs by her hair; when he gripped his hands around her throat and violently shook her, leaving marks. That’s what we called it when we sought refuge at my mother’s friend’s house. When my mother went back, begging Bernard’s forgiveness for leaving. When someone—probably my mother’s friend—anonymously called Child Protective Services, and a social worker started paying visits to our house.
He has a temper.
That’s what we called it when he threw my ceramic piggy bank at me one evening while I was sitting on my bed, doing my high school homework. He burst into my room waving a legal pad with numbers scratched in pencil, fuming that I wasn’t willing to call my father and ask him to pay more in child support. I ducked just in time. The piggy bank hit the wall and smashed to pieces.
All summer I got away with my petty thievery. As I went along, I became cavalier, and concerned myself less and less with any injustice associated with it. I got so comfortable it became perfectly routine.
At the end of August, though, I was in for a surprise. It turned out my stepbrother kept a close accounting of the change in that bowl. On a Saturday night the week before we were each headed upstate to our respective colleges for sophomore year, he came down to dinner livid, practically foaming at the mouth. He pointed the finger . . . at my sister.
“She took it,” he shouted. “I know she did!”
“No I didn’t!” she shrieked.
“Well, then who did, huh?”
I sat there, stunned, saying nothing. My sister and stepbrother continued their shouting match into the night. My sister cried as she pleaded with my mother to believe her.
He has a temper. That’s what we called it when he threw my piggy bank at me one evening, while I was doing my homework.
Before I even considered fessing up, I gave thought to whether it was plausible to suggest someone else might have taken the money. Was there some phantom I could pin this on to make it go away? Someone who might have come to visit? But then I heard my stepbrother insist it had to have been my sister or someone else in the house because he’d been tracking the steady shrinkage over the past two months.
I don’t think I’ve ever felt worse than I did for the twelve hours I let my sister wrongly take the blame. I had to come clean, but I barely knew how. Confessing to crimes wasn’t in my vocabulary. Whenever my sister got caught misbehaving, after a little kicking and screaming it never took her long to admit she was wrong and take her lumps. The idea of that was foreign and frightening to me. I was so well rehearsed at playing the angel. I dreaded the thought of having my perfect image tarnished. Who am I without my halo?
That entire night I sat up writing and rewriting confession notes on the colored personalized stationery I had received as a bat mitzvah present. At five a.m., I placed them in envelopes and left one at each person’s regular seat at the Formica breakfast nook. I included a check in my stepbrother’s.
Later, I hid in my room, wincing as I listened to the conversation downstairs after it was clear the letters had been opened. I heard my sister hiss, “See?!” I heard my stepbrother say, “Yeah, you probably stole some too.” I heard her laugh in his face.
After a while, my mom came upstairs. “You?” she asked. She hardly knew what else to say.
Driving my mother’s transformation was her recent marriage, her third—in every possible way, Stanley, my mother’s third husband, was unlike Bernard. Stanley was warm, kind, lighthearted—a balding amateur magician who called himself “The Great Baldini.” Stanley was thoughtful and ceaselessly generous.
While Stanley wasn’t quite rich, he was much better off than my mother’s first two husbands (including my dad), which meant he had more to share. But for much of my life I’d been brushing up against people with money—relatives, family friends, step-relatives with trust funds—and most of them kept it all to themselves. Stanley was different: a gem, a mensch. From the first week he met us, he treated my sister and me as if we were his own, taking us out to nice restaurants, showering us with birthday and Chanukah gifts, and later, helping me out when I was broke.
In this new marriage, my mother was a different person. The woman I’d known in the mid-seventies as a struggling single mom barely making ends meet on an elementary school teacher’s salary—a socialist “pinko,” as some friends joked, a head of the local NYSUT chapter, who drove a beat-up Dodge Dart—that woman was now unrecognizable to me. Now she went for weekly manicures and pedicures, and had weekly cleaning help instead of just once in a while. A whole new category of apparel sprung up in her walk-in closet—sparkly evening wear for the dinner dances and cocktail parties she often attended on Stanley’s arm. She received gifts of gold jewelry for special occasions and went on vacations to tropical places.
As part of the transition, my mother also suddenly became much more generous toward her daughters. In her marriage to Bernard, giving to us had been difficult for her, in large part because she was afraid of setting off Bernard’s temper. It was a strategic choice, a way of managing the angriest person in the room. Once Bernard was gone and Stanley was in the picture, my mother was reborn. Now when I visited, there was The Ritual Offering of Things. By the end of a weekend visit, I’d be weighed down with all manner of apparel, shoes, tchotchkes, food, and Clinique samples that came with the lipstick she’d just bought at Bloomingdale’s.
She’d offer to take me shopping there and I’d recoil. Yet at thirteen, in the aftermath of my parents’ divorce, I’d wished for this. I would beg my mother to take us to Bloomingdale’s the way other kids beg their parents to take them to Disney. Shopping (or more accurately, browsing) there helped me safeguard against feeling as if we were impoverished products of divorce, which we now absolutely were. After my parents split up, I became very concerned about my outward appearance and became painfully status-conscious. I was determined not to look or feel like some sort of disheveled urchin, like some other divorce kids I knew—always in scuffed shoes and clothes they’d outgrown, with dirty, matted hair. Somehow just being inside Bloomingdale’s had the power to temporarily quell my anxiety about this. For a short time in the aisles there, I could see something resembling want peeking through my mother’s antimaterialism pose.
I recognize now that my mother needs to give to me as desperately as I once needed her to.
We had a ritual: First, the three of us would share two soups and one salad in the store’s restaurant, called Ondine. Once we were fueled up, we’d hit the Clinique counter. Next we were off to the girls’ department, and finally the ladies’ department, where we’d advise my mother on which of the outfits she wasn’t going to buy looked best on her. We never bought clothes—just tried them on. But at the end of each outing we’d head to the gourmet food department in the basement, where my mother would pick up a small jar of Tiptree Little Scarlet preserves, crammed with countless perfect, tiny strawberries peeking out from the glass, and treat us each to a mini Godiva chocolate bar.
At twenty-three, the conspicuous consumption and giving made me terribly uncomfortable. Who was this bougie lady, and what had she done with my mother, the prole? Where was the woman who, in the summer of 1976, had broken up with my father, even though without him, she’d have to face an even greater financial struggle than the ongoing one she’d been accustomed to?
The Bloomingdale’s browsing outings, and pretty much anything else enjoyable, came to an end when Bernard and his two sons entered our lives in early 1981, when I was fifteen. The next six years were bleak and somber, and polluted with rage, ours suppressed, Bernard’s randomly exploded into moments of unforgettable violence.
After one of Bernard’s outbursts—when he threw my sister’s three-in-one stereo at her, and later dragged her down the stairs by her hair—my mother filed divorce papers. It was a relief when he moved out. I had no idea how much bigger a relief was ahead of us, just a few months later, when my mother started going out with Stanley.
Within a short amount of time after my mother and Stanley married, I stopped resisting and lapped up everything my mother offered, although always with some degree of reservation. Most of the time I protest a bit, and then acquiesce, accepting her offerings—for her benefit and for mine. I recognize now that she needs to give to me as desperately as I had once needed her to.
She isn’t just giving me things. She’s giving me giving, something she hadn’t been able to do for so long, which she regretted. In receiving, I give to her the satisfaction of having given.
In May of 2018, at eighty-nine, Stanley suddenly became severely ill. Within a few weeks, a month shy of their thirtieth anniversary, he was gone. My mother’s whole world and her financial stability began crumbling.
In the week after the funeral, I go to help her pack up the winter apartment in Boca Raton. She needs more of the Clinique hypoallergenic foundation she still uses, and asks if we can take a ride to Bloomingdale’s for it.
It is strange being at a Bloomingdale’s branch after so many years of almost never shopping in department stores. So much is exactly the same—the soft lighting, the chic interior design, the appealing merchandising. Some part of me gets a kind of high off the feeling of abundance in the air. I can tell my mother does too. There’s a spring in her step I haven’t seen since Stanley took ill.
“Do you need anything?” my mother asks.
“I’m fine,” I say.
She stops to try on shoes on her way to the Clinique counter. As she slips her foot into a pair of FitFlop flats, she confesses that when Stanley had been in the ICU, she’d gone there to shop away her anxiety, and purchased two tops. Also, she slips in, she has over $600 worth of revolving debt on a Bloomingdale’s charge card.
“Promise me that when the will is settled, you’ll pay that off,” I say. She promises.
These days, appropriately, the tables are turning. I’m fifty-three, she’s seventy-eight, and it’s my turn to take care of her. Fortunately she’s got social security and a pension and other money, enough to cover her bills for now. I pick up the checks at dinner. I bring and send her little gifts—tickets to a local show; organic cranberry concentrate to mix with her seltzer; little pouches she collects to store makeup and jewelry; adult coloring books with positive aphorisms to help her through her grieving; chocolate-dipped macaroons. It feels good to be able to give back to her in what small ways I can.
I have no idea who my mother will become in this next phase of her life, and I can’t help but worry she’ll be vulnerable to the charms of another mean man like Bernard. I hope that no matter who comes along, though, my mother will rediscover her independence and the principles of non-materialism she taught me by example when I was a tween. They might have been a cover for her own rebellion and issues around self-worth, but they make a lot of sense to me now.
Sari Botton is the author of the memoir in essays, And You May Find Yourself...Confessions of a Late-Blooming Gen-X Weirdo. She is a contributing editor at Catapult, and the former Essays Editor for Longreads. She edited the bestselling anthologies Goodbye to All That: Writers on Loving and Leaving NewYork and Never Can Say Goodbye: Writers on Their Unshakable Love for New York. She teaches creative nonfiction at Catapult, Bay Path University and Kingston Writers' Studio. She publishes Oldster Magazine, Memoir Monday, and Adventures in Journalism.