“Is everyone ready?” I called from my room.One of my eyes was focused on the mirror as I checked out my creation — an all-white “Working Girl “power suit from Jacob Junior with shoulder pads, a pleated skirt, and a blue and white polka dot shirt that sported a medieval jester’s 6-inch collar, all of which molded my twelve-year-old shapeless physique into the strong, sharp contour — of a square.
I’d had my hair done the day before; I’d gone with Samantha Horowitz and her mother Fran to the salon in the Cavendish Mall. Samantha got a flowing perm, but I knew Dad would freak out (no piercings, tattoos, or perms—NOTHING PERMANENT) so I just said “tease me” and lord. Sylvain the Quebecois Indian hairdresser who bore an incredibly suspect resemblance to Vanilli (including both leather pants and mane) had split my fringe in two, making half my hairs stand on guard, while the other half were plastered down my forehead. Then he’d blow-dried my long frizzy tresses straight, his arms sinewy as he drew out the strands, humming at how alluring I appeared. Girl … you know it’s true. Of course, sleeping on it all night had not tamed the look, shall we say, and now several areas of the do were fully erect. Worse, the bottom turned outward like a 70s artsy fling. I used two brushes and all my strength to try to curl these tasteless waves under, power-woman straight. Overall, the look had the sexual appeal of smoked trout.
My other eye was on the clock. June 12, 1989. 9:48am.
In seventy-two minutes, I’d become a woman!
I brushed harder. Damn rebellious hair ends. “Hello?”
No answer, except for the sound of morbid trumpet calls and a voice so deep it was as if the speaker had awoken from his own death. It’s Jewish hour, emanated from one of the many radios that were always on in the house, crowding even the air with soundwaves. Today: a new story from the gas chambers. “Hello?”
I slid to the kitchen (thanks, Fishwife beige stockings), where I assumed I’d find Mom among the piles. “Mom.” I took a deep breath. Gentle, abrupt, I was always saying the wrong thing. “Mom, I—”
She wasn’t there.
“Mom?” My heart skipped, but excited for the day, I had hope that this wasn’t the sign of a mood swing, a simmering storm. Her absence could be a good sign! Perhaps she was ready, slipping on her shoes, grabbing her coat, spraying on the final touches of her Charlie or Jean Nate or even Dior Poison that Dad had bought her as a special gift last summer (the name was so apt, Dad hadn’t even made jokes about it), beaming, proud. Normal. Her present to me.
I hopped to her room. “Mom!” But as I opened her broken blue folding door, the one that was missing several hinges so it actually lunged toward me when I moved it (a relic of the former homeowners, 1960s divas whose bold taste we never erased but instead covered over with layers of mess) I glimpsed Mom’s backside, her beige tights pulled over extra-large underwear, the rolls on her sides. She was sitting at her desk, in front of a complex of boxes filled with colorful fastening supplies: paper clips, pins, sewing kits. “Mom.”
“Shut the door, Judy. I’m getting dressed.”
“We have an hour,” I said. “Until my actual bat mitzvah.”
“I know.” She didn’t turn around. “Now go.”
Behind her loomed her king-sized bed, the real Mount Kildare, stacked with clothes, blankets and papers that now covered its entire surface except for a small edge where Mom slept. Mom, who’d been born in 1945 on my grandparents’ journey from Siberian workcamps back to war-ravaged Poland, a refugee before she knew what home was, was depressed and worked at a government job, leaving before I woke up and asleep on the sofa when I came home. She loved me as she could, but was increasingly moody, paranoid and unreliable.
I wanted to hang out with her in the evenings and watch Thirtysomething pretending I understood it and laughing along with her chuckles, but there was no room. A broken door wasn’t the same as an open door.
I tucked my worry into myself, and decided to go practice my speech. This wasn’t really a bat mitzvah, just a group simcha; the girls — all nine of whom I would be celebrating my personal coming of age with—would not read from the torah. Though my Montreal Jewish community was obsessed with Club Med and teppanyaki dining, and though my school taught experimental Hebrew poetry instead of prayer, the synagogues were strictly Orthodox, and there was no such thing as a bat mizvah in Jewish tradition. Instead of reading from the Torah or leading prayers, we girls gave speeches about Jewish themes we’d studied. This was fine with me. School—with its clear systems, tests, grades — was my forte; my solidity.
For my speech, I’d picked my favorite holiday. “Passover is the celebration of freedom. It commemorates spring. It is a time of fresh starts. A holiday symbolized by the egg, itself a circle. The symbol of life. Cyclical life.” Then there was the fact that Passover was the quintessential holiday of order. Obsessive order. The word ‘seder’ means order; the whole evening begins with a chronologically-determined to-do list and ends with a repetitive chant about goats. Ten plagues, ten commandments, four glasses of wine, three forefathers, two tablets.
The one meal of the year that my family ate at home, together, at the same time.
45 minutes. No answer.
The rush to flee Egypt. Why is this night different from all other nights? But, of course, it wasn’t.
From “WHITE WALLS: A Memoir About Motherhood, Daughterhood, and the Mess in Between” by Judy Batalion. Reprinted by arrangement with New American Library, an imprint of Penguin Random House LLC.