Valerie Steiker’s Belgian Jewish mother, Gisèle—who, as a child in Antwerp, was hidden from the Nazis—wasn’t a typical American mom. She spoke with throaty Belgian Rs and wore only high heels. Before her marriage, she had studied acting with Lee Strasburg and been a model in Mexico. With her vitality and elegance, she created a joyous childhood for Valerie and her sister. Together they tangoed through their vibrant Manhattan apartment, took in great art, and shared “women’s hidden secrets.” Gisèle’s premature death left Valerie (at the time a junior at Harvard) unmoored, but in grieving and in finding her own path to womanhood, Valerie would ultimately grow to understand Gisèle more profoundly than she ever had as a child. Beautifully evocative of a glamourous and now-vanished world, The Leopard Hat is an extraordinary memoir about the warm and indelible bond between mother and daughter.
|Publisher:||Knopf Doubleday Publishing Group|
|Sold by:||Random House|
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Ladybug, Ladybug Two, three afternoons a week, I find my mother at the beauty parlor. She uses it like an office, talking on the telephone while her hair is being combed out, her nails painted. She doesn't call it a hairdresser's or a beauty salon, like American mothers. She is Belgian and, with throaty Rs, she says "beauty parlor," the words repeated together so often in our household that they almost become one word. The place doesn't exist anymore. The main hairdresser died of AIDS while my mother was still with him; the other stylist went on to make movies. I have no idea what happened to the soft-spoken women in white nurses' dresses, all those mysterious bottles of potions, the dated equipment, the peach-painted walls. An entire world has vanished.
In my mother's address book, though, a treasurebook filled with her musical handwriting, it is still there, impossible to find unless you know to turn to "Beautyparlor"–the way you can't get the number for the drugstore, the garage, the carpenter, the curtain store, unless you look under "Pharmacy," "Parking," "Handyman," "Draperies." My mother, speaker of nine languages, has her own way of saying things, which I unconsciously adopt. Later my sister and I will cherish these linguistic oddities, the way we always get an adage just slightly wrong–Will wonders never seize!, my mother writes to me my sophomore year in college–and will jokingly refer to it as European Mother Syndrome. But for now friends tease me because I say "valise" instead of "suitcase," or they try to imitate her French accent when she calls for me or my sister from the other end of the apartment, Valérie! Stéphanie! It is always urgent when she calls us, she has to tell us something, wants us to do something right away. She is a woman of the moment.
The beauty parlor is called Davir. I can hear my mother say it, her resonant voice bearing down on the "eeer." We don't have to cross the street to get there. It's right on our block, and like our apartment, it, too, is on the second floor, which is low enough for my mother, who has a fear of heights. Walking into the peach enclave, its floor-to-ceiling windows overlooking Madison Avenue, one is quickly embraced by the pungent blend of hair spray and nail polish remover, laced with an assortment of women's perfumes, the barest trace of men's sweat. Under the spinning chairs, there are mouselike heaps of dead hair on the floor, which are continually swept away. Aside from the hairdressers, there are no men, only women, those who want to become more beautiful and those who are there to help them do so. The clients don't look so attractive for the duration of their visit, all of them in the same regulation pink robe, their hair pasted to their heads with various kinds of foul-smelling substances, their makeup causing them to appear a little sad under the bright lights, like clowns.
My mother has to come because she can't do her own hair. She can't do ours either, and tells us from an early age not to be afraid of doing it ourselves. As a result we can do anything–Swedish braids, ballerina buns, high ponytails, our small fingers clicking at high speeds. At home my mother takes baths, not showers, careful not to get her hair wet. She puts oil in the water, and we visit her, washing her back with a soapy wet cloth, dragging it pleasurably over the right angles of her shoulders, the jutting knobs of her hidden spine. Her skin is lustrous, warm to the touch. The water as she leans forward beads off her skin quickly and obediently. Her back is wide and even, browned from years of sun, a gorgeous back. When she wears a backless dress, people take notice. She is a real woman, full of curves, with floating breasts, sunken hips, a tiny waist. I am much narrower on top and bottom, yet my waist will never be as small as hers. I love her body, her back, her arms. We have a game. When I rest my hand on her arm, she tenses it quickly, an invisible flash, her secret way of saying "I love you," which I understand as clearly as if she had breathed the words directly in my ear. At the same time, I see too much of her body, it embarrasses me. She often walks around the house nude, comfortable that way. Eventually we get used to it, thinking that other mothers must be doing the same thing. We figure it is what women do, like wearing a garter belt and stockings.
At the beauty parlor, they wash your hair for you, your head craned back into a sink, one of the women kneading her knuckles into your scalp, a bit roughly, then rinsing the tension away. Sometimes when I arrive, my mother is under a dryer. It reminds me of the painting that hangs in our library, the one my mother's decorator gave to her as a gift after he finished working with her on our apartment. All reds and pinks, it shows a nineteen-forties-era beauty parlor, lipsticked women in strappy shoes and splashy skirts half hidden under ivory-colored casques, lolling about in their chairs as graceful as gazelles. But my mother looks a little funny wearing a robe outside the house, sitting beneath one of the large, smooth, egg-shaped domes, the heat blasting her hair dry and surrounding her with noise. I can't talk to her when she's under there. She'll try to ask me a question–"How was school? How did ballet go?–but no matter what I say she can't hear. One time my mother realized that Grace Kelly was beside her, sitting under the next dryer. The princess leaned over and asked my mother if she could borrow her newspaper. My mother had gone through it already, leaving the pages crumpled and mismatched. "My husband usually insists on reading the paper first," my mother explained ruefully, as she handed over the bedraggled jumble. "Yes, I can see why," the princess replied, with a smile.
My mother's hairdresser, Norberto, is a handsome man. He is permanently tanned, his movements with the comb languorous. We can tell he gets a kick out of my mother, her personality, her stories. As she talks, he grins, teeth flashing, like the gold chain at his open neck. Before he can get to work, he must perm my mother's hair, which is naturally flat. When she was little, her father became obsessed with the goal of changing his daughter's straight locks. He kept insisting that if she shaved her head completely, her hair was bound to grow back in wondrous curls. My mother laughs whenever she tells us this, maybe in relief that it remained just talk, that he never made her actually do it.
Once her head is a mass of ringlets, Norberto does one of two things, depending on the mood she's in. Either her hair goes up, teased into a seductive pile of curls on top of her head and held with pins and a couple of well-placed combs, or down, a more "natural" style, with spray-stiffened waves softly reaching to her shoulders. Whichever one she picks, when she gets home that day and looks in the mirror, she likes it better than the way she had it before. If it's up, she gets mad at us for having liked it down, why were we trying to keep her away from her true look. If it's down, she says we must have wanted her to look old by having it up all the time, it's "younger" this way. She is not really mad, though, just reasoning out loud.
I myself prefer it up. This is what I'm used to, how I think of her, the curls when she first comes home so perfectly arranged. No other mother I have ever seen has her hair that way. As the hours wear on, after the first night of sleeping on it, the upsweep becomes a little lopsided, my mother adding combs and bobby pins haphazardly to keep it upright. She's less coiffed, but maybe more charming that second day. By the third morning, the curls are quite matted down, my mother vainly pulling at them to make them come back to life. No matter what she tries to do, her hair resists her, as if it senses that this is an area where she is not in control. This is why she loves hats. Placing one right on top of her now collapsed do, she is ready–for lunch, for walking up Madison Avenue, for her next appointment at the beauty parlor.
After a hat day, my mother's hair sticks closely to her head, like a little cap. In her bathrobe, she hugs us, her face slick with moisturizer. This is her private side, not the one of lunches at Le Relais with the girls, dinners out with my father. Hair in disarray, pins protruding in odd ways, this is when she organizes our lives, scheduling doctors' appointments, planning trips, keeping up with her family in Belgium. No one else sees her this way. She is ours, not "on." This is how she keeps the whole thing moving, and somewhere here I learn that you can't work unless you're willing to get down and dirty. On a trip with my father, my mother once walked with a friend, talking about the dinner party she was hosting the night after they got back to New York. "How do you do it, Gisèle?" her friend asked, marveling at the abundance of plans. My mother answered right away. "With this," she said, raising up her right pointer finger, her dialing finger, revealing her favored mode of making things happen.
My mother's hands are very shapely. She has square palms, long, elegant fingers, gently curving nails. Her two aunts, my tantes, instruct me from an early age on how nails are supposed to grow, with a roundness from side to side as well as a small curve as the nail leaves the tip of the finger. My nails will never curve as well as theirs–”perhaps it's the American air. My mother gets her nails done at the beauty parlor, although in a pinch she will do her hands herself. She always wears the same color, a bright red, so that I almost don't recognize her hands on the few occasions I see them bare. She gestures a lot as she talks, her cherry-tipped fingers moving about like wands, enhancing every story.
My mother's toes are different. From childhood her mother made her wear too-small shoes, to be ladylike. (When my mother married my father, he encouraged her to buy larger shoes, so her feet wouldn't hurt her all the time. Overnight, she went from a six to a seven and a half.) After her painful experiences, she is very vigilant about making sure that my sister's and my toes have enough room in our shoes. My tantes, come to New York from Antwerp on a short visit, gaze with disapproval at the sneakers we wear all the time. It is summer, we are out in our country house on Long Island running around. They cluck and say that our feet will spread in those sneakers, just get bigger and bigger without any proper leather to keep them reined in. We are glad to wear sneakers, scared that our feet will turn out like our mother's, which are highly sensitive and have strange contours. Her toes overlap, coming together even without shoes to a kind of point. When she gets a pedicure, she makes sure to tell the woman to be careful, it hurts to have her toes manipulated too much. We can't tell whether her toes are misshapen as a result of wearing shoes that are too tight for her, or because she inherited them–" her mother's toes, my tantes' toes, are all in the same condition. Growing up, we will constantly look down to check that our toes are straight, praying for them to stay that way and not start to cross over one another. But they never do, so we learn that the plight was environmental, not genetic.
According to my mother, it's good for you to wear shoes of different heights, but she herself wears only high heels, including the satin slippers in which she traipses around the house. After years and years of nothing but high-heel wearing, her hips have been realigned. Anything flat makes her whole body hurt. A woman who was once on a sailing trip with her was amazed to see that even my mother's canvas boat shoes had a small heel. "But do you always wear high heels?" the friend asked my mother with disbelief. "Always," my mother said. "What about at night?" her friend asked, trying to trip her up. My mother thought about it for a moment, and then answered, "I kick them off!"
From the tips of her toes to the crown of her head, my mother gets dressed as if it were a military operation, every detail fine-tuned to ensure a successful mission. But the final ensemble is not a protective shield or a weapon. It just instinctively becomes part of the way she disarms people, wins them over with her warmth, her charm. She has the European habit of wearing the same outfit several days in a row, especially if it is new or she feels particularly good in it. We have to remind her she is in America, where people wear something different every day.
There is a huge contrast between my mother, fitted out in her finery, and the fury of activity that precedes any outing. The whole house is in a fracas until she finishes getting dressed, especially if it is night and she is going out with my father. (Once, when they were off to the theater, she was in such a hurry that she forgot to bring their tickets, and offered up her diamond earrings for the evening to the man at the box office as proof she wasn't lying.) After her bath, she sits on her bed, pulling on her stockings, demanding her silver-tipped shoes, her beaded handbag, a glass of club soda from the kitchen. She is quick-tempered. My sister and I, the housekeeper, all scurry about, trying to keep up with her impatience. We are allowed to vote on what she's wearing, putting in a plea for a certain bracelet, shoes whose shape or color we feel will work better than the ones she has out. As we grow older, she listens to our suggestions more and more. My sister and I learn how an outfit is constructed, the disparate pieces fitting together just so until she is no longer a woman but a vision. We watch in the bathroom as she blackens her lashes, applies different lipsticks, one on top of the next, until she hits on her own inimitable shade of red. My father has safely removed himself to the library by this point, where we hear him fooling around on the piano, waiting for her. He plays one of several standards, ranging from his and my mother's song, "All of Me," to his own anthem, "The Sunny Side of the Street." The minute my mother's ready, jewels and eyes sparkling, an invisible garland of perfume sparking the air around her, she goes and stands in the library door. "What are you doing, Jerry?" she asks. "We have to leave, we're late." My father, laughing a little because he's been ready all along, puts an early end to his song and stands up to join her. It is a sight we are used to, him handsome in his hat, her enveloped in one of her furs, their attention already out the door, my parents, dressed up and going out for the evening. Then they're gone, the scent of my mother's Opium lingering in the foyer air.
We are not the only ones to notice how regularly she glitters. On March 8, 1983, two men with pistols break into our apartment. They don't even break in, they just put a gun to our superintendent's head and have him ring our back door. They know exactly where they want to go. When our housekeeper asks who it is and then hears the super's voice, she lets them in. It is 9 a.m. on a Tuesday morning. My sister and I are at school. My father is at work. The two men tie up the housekeeper, the super, the back elevator man. They tie up my mother. For shackles they use a motley selection of belts, busting into my closet and grabbing them from where they hang neatly on brass hooks. We will throw them all out afterward, disgusted, the innocent pink grosgrain become tainted, the rainbow stripes no longer happy to the eye.
My mother tries not to tell the men where she keeps her jewelry. She tries to pretend that whatever they see, that's all there is. But they know better. They put a gun to her head and say, We don't want to hurt you, Mrs. Steiker. We're only doing our job. She gives in. A few things are at the bank, in a safe-deposit box, but everything else is stashed in her gleaming Biedermeier desk, in a secret drawer you can open only if you press a button hidden in its depths. ("In case we have to go into hiding, we'll have these diamonds," she told my aunt once, prepared to repeat history.) We learn never to store everything in one place, that it is a mistake to keep the sentimental tokens with the serious pieces.
As they walk with her through the rooms, they compliment her on the apartment, then ask if her children are home. When she replies no, they say, Good, we don't like to do this with kids around. The thieves stick things in their pockets like pirates looting a ship, first whatever she's wearing–her gold wedding band, her mother's onyx-and-diamond ring, her favorite bracelet, with its fat ruby-studded clasp–and then whatever's lying about, an old watch, a monogrammed compact I gave her for Mother's Day. (Later this makes us laugh, that they took the compact, thinking they were taking something real.) They have brought sacks, into which they pour the contents of the secret drawer. They take all her fur coats, the fox-trimmed mink, the astrakhan jacket, the raccoon cape, cramming them in. They don't touch the silver, or anything else in the house. They only take what's distinctly hers.
When I come home from school that day I am tired, in a teenage bad mood. My sister meets me at the door and tells me we were robbed. I get annoyed, thinking it's a joke, but she persists with her story until I have to believe her. I start crying, hugging my mother again and again, the notion that there was a gun to her head making me crazy, the thought of losing her unthinkable. The police are there, interrogating. We are sent to stay with friends. I stare at people on the street differently, any one of them could have done it. The world is no longer a safe place. Something ugly has come into our home, tried to wreck it. For a long time, my mother won't wear any jewelry. We pester her about it, wanting her to resume being her usual self. Eventually she relents, buying herself a matching bracelet and earrings. Only years later do we realize they are fake, that she bought them just to mollify us.
Out of a noir film, a few days later my parents get a phone call from a man they've never met. He says he will tell my father who the thieves are for a ten-thousand-dollar reward. They agree to meet in the lobby of the Hilton, my father promising to wear a raincoat and carry an umbrella. Our apartment has turned into a kind of police headquarters. There are men in the kitchen drinking coffee. My mother, in her bedroom, gets hysterical. Crying, she absolutely forbids my father to go, she has lost enough without worrying about her husband's life. In the end my father agrees with her (perhaps he is a little relieved after all), and the police chief of our precinct, who is about the same size and also wears a moustache, goes in his place, wired up.
At first the man is suspicious, saying my father's voice sounds different. The police chief mumbles something about having a cold, and finally the man is convinced. He pulls out a photograph of the two robbers and our back elevator man, the three of them smiling with their arms around one another, standing in front of a booth on Coney Island, literally thick as thieves. The photograph, we can see from the date printed on its bottom, was taken the day we were robbed, the thieves so happy with themselves they went there to celebrate. We learn that it was an inside job, that our anonymous caller wasn't cut in on the deal. Even we get that this makes him a rat. The police raid one of the robbers' houses. They recover whatever was put into pockets, nothing of what was put into sacks. But this means that my mother has her wedding ring back, her mother's ring, her bracelet. Gone are innumerable treasures, our baby trinkets, my mother's pearls, the ruby-and-diamond parure my father had just given her as an anniversary gift, the necklace, bracelet, and earrings designed like lush sprays of asymmetrical flowers. My mother likes only old jewelry, Deco pieces like her mother wore.
The New York Post headline will read big e. side jewel heist: bandits tie up rich woman and maid. A policeman is quoted in the article, his only comment "She is a wealthy woman." I am embarrassed that all my friends see this printed in the paper. I hate that the articles name dollar amounts, both because it reveals too much about our family and because it gives a value to the stolen jewelry when what was taken, things of my mother's, my grandmother's, was beyond counting. There will be a trial. It will emerge that my mother gave that same back elevator man money on a regular basis, a hundred dollars here, fifty dollars there, to help him out with his family. He is someone who was always around, coming into the apartment to fix something, operating the back elevator to relieve someone else's shift. We know this man only slightly, but it is still hard to reconcile that he knew my mother and could want to hurt her.
For months my sister and I go with our mother on trips to 47th Street, scanning shop windows for her stolen pieces. We half expect to see one of her coats walking by on Madison Avenue. My mother goes to see a psychiatrist, to discuss the trauma of the event. She explains that she feels lucky to be alive, that she is aware it's only material things that were lost, nothing that really matters. She is concerned about rebuilding the sanctity of our home, making sure that we all feel safe there, that we can all move on. He tells her he has never met anyone with such a healthy outlook on life.
Afterward my mother puts heavy locks on our doors. An alarm system is installed, holes drilled into every window for thin nails, which will block them from opening wide. Before we leave the house for the weekend, my mother makes us check every window to be sure that the nails are in place. We grow adept at snaking our hands behind curtains, feeling for them. At night I have dreams that men I don't know are coming in through the windows, into my room–the classic nightmare of an overprotected child.
After it is all done with, and the shock, the fear for my mother's life, has somewhat subsided, we are grateful to have those few pieces that were stored safely at the bank, for the history they embody that no new jewelry ever will. This is especially true of the diamond-and-platinum set that belonged to my mother's mother. My grandmother was a chameleon, looking like a Spanish matron in a rose-covered shawl in one photograph, a Hollywood diva with turban and sunglasses in another, and like her, her jewels are complicated and changeable. The necklace breaks down into two bracelets, the insectlike brooches, one large and one small, become pendants. There are a seemingly infinite number of ways the elements can be combined. At her wedding, my mother wore the necklace as a tiara, an anchor for the lace veil floating from her dark hair.
I come from a long line of small, elegant, dark-haired women who are somewhat excitable and look good in red. Before I am old enough to speak, I see my mother in a bright red coat, a ring of fur at her neck and hem, a shiny black belt around her waist. She is the most beautiful woman in the world. Her poise, her presence, her easy glamour–these are all things she inherited from her own mother. My grandmother, of ivory skin, dark hair and eyes, apple cheeks, was a coquette. She had three husbands in all: the first and most important was my grandfather, who died in Auschwitz; the second was impossible, and eventually became one of the reasons my mother left Belgium; the third was sweet, but perhaps slightly inconsequential after the purity of the first and the pettiness of the second.
Whatever the occasion, my grandmother was always decked out, as a woman had to be in those days. It was from her that my mother got her sense of vogue, so that during my childhood in the seventies, my mother will look back to the thirties and forties, to the memory of my grandmother in fox stoles, clip earrings, crocodile handbags, a jeweled pin ever present on her lapel. My mother even collects vintage evening dresses from those decades, one-of-a-kind beaded gowns that my sister and I help her put on so as not to muss her hair. But whereas my mother will be overly generous with us, lavishing my sister and me with affection, with loving words, with presents, my mother and her mother were rivals. When my mother, age eighteen, came home one day in Antwerp and told her mother about a pretty coat she had seen in a boutique–Will you go look at it for me? she asked. To see if you like it?–my grandmother came back the next day with the coat in a shopping bag, having bought it for herself. It's too old for you, she said, as she hung it up in her closet. My mother reacts to this minor cruelty, this dashing of her feminine hopes, by going too far in the other direction. If my sister and I ever compliment something of hers, it is ours. No, no, I don't want it, we have to say, it's yours, I was only saying I liked it, that it looks good on you. She always offers us the first cut of an apple–the best piece, with its sweet flesh preserved under a shiny red back–even though we know she likes it too. We repeatedly have to stop her from trying to give us too much.
Despite all her womanly ways, I learn that my mother was mortified at becoming a woman, a momentous event that took place in Antwerp, after her father had died in the camps, after she and her mother and her brother had come out of hiding. Within months of my grandmother's somewhat precipitous second marriage, it became clear that her new husband was a mean-spirited man. He took pleasure in thwarting my mother and her brother at every turn. He ordered them to do the dishes after dinner, but if he sensed they were having fun while doing so, he would make them stop. Whenever he noticed they were enjoying a song on the radio, he changed the station. To amuse themselves, and to stay out of trouble, my mother and her brother lay on the floor and read the dictionary, starting from the first page, teaching themselves each word in a project they would never finish.
The day my mother got her first period she told her mother in the morning. Her mother and stepfather were having a dinner party later that evening, and as the guests all settled in the living room, her stepfather called for her to come out. She came, uncomfortable, not feeling well, not wanting to be there. He announced to all the adults what had happened to her that day, embarrassing her in front of everyone under the guise of celebrating the fact. She stood there, shamed, not wanting to believe it was happening, hoping that she could crawl back into bed and this news, this horrible man, would all go away.
My mother suffered from her periods, often spending the day in bed. When, to her dismay, her breasts started to develop, she bound them with scarves, which she pulled tightly around her chest so she could keep it absolutely flat. Perhaps she didn't want to change from the little girl her father had known, felt no desire to become as complex as she felt her own mother to be. Whatever the reasons, her ruse came to an end the day my grandmother put her hand on my mother's back and felt a bump in the middle of it, where the knot was tied. She made her remove it at once, forbidding her to ever do something so ridiculous again.
Years later I will feel the same disbelief when my body starts to change without my consent. When I wake up one morning with one of my nipples protruding from my wall-flat chest, I am very upset. I figure I must have bumped into something without realizing it, or else I have some unusual and deadly disease. I call my mother into my room and we examine my chest closely. One side is level, same as it's always been. The other is slightly poufed out and feels a little sore. We call the doctor. I turn crimson as he begins to explain puberty to me over the phone. How could this be happening to me already?
A couple of years later, when I become a woman, I am fourteen. I am on the coast of Italy, staying in a house with a friend and her mother. My mother brings me there, spends a few days with us, and then leaves to join my father at a spa. I can't believe she is going. I love the friend I'm with, but we are just at that age where one does and the other one copies. I am the doer. It infuriates me unreasonably whenever I see she has done the exact same thing I have–”pierced her ears, chosen the same kind of ice-cream cone, bought the same color espadrilles. I can't see that it is out of love. I am mad at my mother for leaving me. My friend's mother is more strict, less fun. Before my mother goes, she asks me to keep a box of feminine pads for her. The box is unwieldy, she doesn't want to carry it with her. Puzzled, I comply.
The day after she leaves, I develop severe cramps. I don't know what they're from, all I know is that I'm in pain and have to spend a lot of time in the bathroom. Every time I pull down my underwear, I see brown stains. I don't make the connection with blood. I just think that something has gone terribly wrong. I confess to my friend and her mother that I'm not well. I feel hot, I can't get away from my physical self. We all decide it's a stomach flu, and her mother promises to feed me nothing but rice, which will make me better in no time. The beach is a rocky challenge, the water wonderfully cool, but I no longer feel like going. I don't trust my body anymore. At night, I cry in bed for my mother, wondering what is happening to me. After three days, I finally figure out what it is, alone in the green-tiled bathroom, my abdomen killing me, the blood streaming from between my legs. I use the pads my mother left for me. Later, stumbling to get the words out, I tell my friend. Her mother slaps me. It is a Jewish tradition, to ward off the evil eye. When my mother returns, I tell her, too, making her swear not to tell my father. She slaps me again, hard, then cries with happiness.