Lies My Father Told Me  

 alternative medicine     science and philosophy       biography     home
  literature and art        gallery        history and misc.       blog       email
Chapter VII

   Polar opposites are abstractions. Mrs. Tannen-
baum and Edna taught me as much as anyone that
there is no black and white. In this world of things,
all qualities integrate.
   Mrs. Tannenbaum was a woman; she was a mother!
But she looked like a man. And she had a moustache,
   Good and bad? Beautiful, ugly? Edna was plain,
but she was alive, and she seemed beautiful. She wore
long beautiful hair, and beautiful blouses. She was
only just a woman, and still a girl, who lived alone
just across the street. Opinion said she was bad. She
played games with men for a living. She had time to
play with the children too, and we all liked her.
   Edna holds a yellow flower under my chin. Gleam-
ing yellow buttercup. Silky mirror skin. "If it shows
yellow, that means you pee in bed. Yellow . . . you
pee in bed."

   Smiling, looking down at the flower, I explain, half-
musing, "I used to. I don't anymore."
   Edna looks at the flower.
   "That's right," she concedes graciously. "You used
to." Now she holds the flower under Danny Tan-
nenbaum's chin. "You pee in bed now."
   Danny, red, reluctantly nods. "Only sometimes."
I take the flower from Edna's hand and hold it un-
der her chin. "You pee in bed?"
   "I used to," she says, laughing.
   Mrs. Tannenbaum's voice precedes her. Carrying a
large shopping bag, she cascades large and gruesome
on to us. "Danny! I told you not to go near that dirty
whore! She'll give you a disease!" She pulls her
Danny away.
   A minute ago the sun shone. Now this fat bigot is
raining her poison on us.
   Edna is infuriated. "Your mouth could give him a
   In anger and disgust Mrs. Tannenbaum retorts,
"Whores and horse shit! What a neighborhood! She
has to move to this street! Naturally! Mrs. Founder!
Your boy is playing with the whore!"
   A window opens. A woman's head. "Come in the
house, Andre."
   Another voice calls out, "Marie. Come m the
   All the children scatter, except for Cleo and me.

   The tailor shop has a small room off the front
room. One wall is completely lined with books. On a
workbench is a pants press. Mr. Baumgarten is iron-
ing a jacket and talking to Mr. Elias, my zaideh. Mr.
Elias sips lemoned tea from a glass. The hot iron
sizzles steam from new damp garments. The tailor
pats the cloth, and asks, "Who was it that said, "What
is the bigger crime? To rob a bank or to open a
   Grandpa sips his tea. "Probably Jeremiah."
   Mr. Baumgarten is amused. He puts aside the hot
iron and goes to look for a book, to track down the
quotation. Despite his amusement he comments dry-
ly that the author of the quote was more probably
Karl Marx.
   Grandpa's eyes follow the tailor over to the book-
shelves. In his opinion, Karl Marx only repeated what
the ancient prophets said.
   "Not quite. Not quite." Mr. Baumgarten's finger
reads the titles on the bookshelf. He finds the book
he seeks, removes it, and sits down to find the quota-
   Grandpa, holding his tea, eyes the German, Rus-
sian, and English books.
   "Have you read all of these books?"
   The tailor peers up, looking at his books lovingly.
All the great and pertinent political thoughts of the
day are housed on these shelves. "All of them," he an-
swers. "And I still read them."
   Grandpa nods with respect. "I've read only one
book... and I'm still reading it."
   Mr. Baumgarten nods his respect for the ancient
book. "The ancient prophets were wise, Mr. Elias. I
don't deny that. But they couldn't foresee the rise of
capitalism, nor did they understand the class nature of
   Mr. Baumgarten's eyes scan his row of books, while
Grandpa answers for the prophets, saying, "They
foretold that when the Messiah came, all injustice
would disappear."
   And Baumgarten, the tailor muses, "The working
class is today's messiah, Mr. Elias."
   The room, light enough to sew in, is still dark af-
ter the sun. I enter, searching for Grandpa. I'm car-
rying Edna's buttercup, and show Grandpa. "Why is
Edna dirty, Grandpa? Doesn't she like to wash?"
   Grandpa looks to Mr. Baumgarten for help with
the explanation, and then looks back at me. "She
washes, like everybody else. But she sells lies."
   I've thought a lot about Grandpa's answer. At first
it surprised me. "She tells lies and sells them?"
   Mr. Baumgarten tries to help. "You'd be surprised
how many people sell and how many people buy lies."
   Grandpa's eyes fly to the window, chasing some
commotion in the courtyard. Wisps of commotion
outside obtrude into the tailor's room. Angry words
and hatred. Edna and Tannenbaum are arguing. Their
voices swelling. The old men exchange a look and
start to leave the shop to go and see what is happen-
ing, while I'm thinking of Edna's "lies," and say to
Grandpa, "I bet Papa buys from her."
   "He doesn't have to buy from her," scorns Zaideh.
   Outside, Edna is standing in the court, shouting up
at Mrs. Tannenbaum.
   Mrs. Tannenbaum is on her balcony, hurling insults
back. Mrs. Tannenbaum is in a terrible temper. "Get
out of the yard! You don't belong here! I'lI call the
   Edna stands with her hands on her hips. "I'll stand
here and show my ass if I want to!"
   "You should be stoned! We should stone you! You
hear me? We should stuff her filthy mouth!"
   Edna, belligerently, turns and lifts her skirt, show-
ing her bloomers to Mrs. Tannenbaum. "Kiss my royal
American ass!"
   This brings the courtyard audience some merriment.
Edna proudly leaves.
"We should stone her! Stone her! The police won't
do anything! We should stone her!"
   Grandpa, looking at his friend Baumgarten, lectures
the courtyard. "Stone her? Once before people stoned
such a girl as Edna, and this great rabbi came along
and protected her, and said, 'He who is without sin
amongst you, let him cast the first stone.' Nobody
threw another stone. Everyone had sinned."
   Mr. Baumgarten looks surprised. "A great rabbi,
Mr. Elias?"
   "And what was he, if not a great rabbi, Mr.
   What a full, full day, and not even a Sunday!
   A taxi pulls up to the gate of the courtyard and
stops. A beaming, triumphant Harry emerges, carrying
many packages. Paying the cabbie, he calls out to
me, "Davie. Come and give me a hand."
   I go and help my father with the parcels.
   Harry strides past Grandpa, crowing. "The bank
loan came through."
   Grandpa simply nods. He and Mr. Baumgarten re-
turn to the shade of the tailor's shop, as we parcel up
the stairs.
   Cleo holds the buttercup under her dog's jowls and
tells the world inexplicably. "My feet are clean, 'cause
my mamma washes them."
   Evening comes, and we are frantic-merry. Grand-
pa, Annie, Harry, Uncle Benny, and me in the living
room. I love the noise and confusion of the celebra-
tion, at least from the safety of grandpa's shadow.
Grandpa watches silently.
   Harry and Benny gloat, bloated with success.
   Annie dances, swirling the new shawl Harry has
bought her. The phonograph is playing, and Annie
sings in accompaniment. "I'm just wild about Harry,
and Harry's wild about me..."
   The music slows, slurs, and I run over to the gram-
ophone to rewind it. Excited. I enjoy my mother sing-
ing. I rush to join her dancing. I clutter-scamper
around her feet. She turns to Grandpa to say, "You'll
have to admit. Papa, that he finally did it."
   She resumes her song, and sings a particularly love-
ly note. "I'd love to take up singing lessons again,"
she dreams.
   "Why did you stop?" asks Grandpa. "I was willing
to pay."
   Annie dances in front of Harry. Still humming
how she's wild about him, she throws her answer side-
ways to Grandpa, "I got married."
   Harry reclines on the sofa, legs crossed, feeling ex-
pansive, smoking a cigar.
   Uncle Benny's sitting by the table, feeling awkward,
left outside the excitement, reannounces to the room
and all who care to listen: "I told the bank manager
it would revolutionize the men's clothing business.
He'd have never recommended the loan if I hadn't
presented it the way I did."
   Harry throws him a small nod, kingly acknowl-
edgment. Puffing on his cigar, he gives Grandpa a
long, knowing look, and says, proud, "In another year
you'll be able to retire."
   Grandpa, silent, nods.
   Annie renders another beautiful phrase, another
fine sweet note, and comments, "Not bad, eh?"
   Harry looks up at Annie, who is just in front of
"Not bad for a pregnant lady," he says.
   Grandpa smiles at his Annie's happy face, but falls
short of full warmth, caught with mixed emotions,
feeling that the sunny spell can't last long. Now he
puts his heart and concentration into his smile and
summons the faith to say to his daughter, "It's not
too late. You can still study."
   In reply, Annie holds her big belly, indication of
her fate and status, and laughs and dances and sings
again. "Too late... too late... too late."
   Benny, chewing on his cigar, looks around, be-
wildered. "What's too late?"
   And I'm winding up the gramophone.


Chapter VIII