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In truth, my mother was not a beautiful woman. She told me so one day—certainly no one else had ever said such a thing—when we were driving on Sunset Boulevard on the way home from a shopping trip. A half hour before, our heads had been inclined together over a makeup counter in I. Magnin’s department store, discussing blusher and the thickness of my eyebrows; she was all for having them waxed. Her own were cosmetically symmetrical, twin brush strokes of derision, purposefully countering the undisguised melancholy of her large hazel eyes. I had asked her as the car swept smoothly through the canyon, past the long stand of eucalyptus outside the entrance to UCLA, and through the tall black gates of Bel Air, “But don’t you think you are beautiful?
I believed, of course, that she was—it was one of our family’s most cherished myths, my mother’s loveliness. “Isabel,” she said, “my nose is too big, my face is too thin, my mouth is too small.”
On that afternoon I was stunned by her assessment, and by the speed with which she reported her flaws, as if too many times she might have rehearsed those shortcomings as she looked at herself in the mirror while dressing for a date. But as I look back through the surprisingly few photographs that I have of my mother, I see that she was right. She was not beautiful.
There is one picture, though, of us together in my grandfather’s garden, each with fruit and flowers in our arms—the photograph a testament to the garden’s generosity. We are standing before the flowering peach tree, the sun is on our faces, our slender fair arms. In that picture she is breathtaking.
Young—twenty-two, white skin, rich dark hair, her small mouth slightly open and her lips flushed crimson. Her nearly green eyes wide and solemn. Even when she laughed, my mother’s eyes did not accompany her in mirth; they were unflinchingly sad, and dry, as if they did not recognize the use in weeping.
My mother was not yet eighteen when she and my father married. They were totally unsuited to one another. In one of those metaphorically apt instances that fate provides, they met at an amateur production of Oliver Goldsmith’s She Stoops to Conquer, or The Mistakes of a Night. They were teenagers, each attending the play with his and her high school English class; each reinforced in their flirtation by the presence of giggling, envious friends; each, at heart, lonely.
My father had been living in Los Angeles for only a few years. From September to June he attended a preparatory school for boys located in the Hollywood Hills; summers he worked as the institution’s groundskeeper in exchange for room and board. His father, a man who made his living as an exterminator and drove a panel truck with sombreroed cockroaches stenciled on its sides, sent his favorite son to this school which he had read about in Look magazine. He intended to reimburse my father for a miserable childhood of abandonment and philandering and spent what was for him a small fortune on my father’s high school education, forcing the boy to emigrate from Douglas, a small, dusty and predominantly Hispanic town on Arizona’s border with Mexico and a twin to the southern country’s town of Agua Pieta, to Los Angeles, a much greater city and one that my father did not understand. Because travel was expensive—to drive the 576 miles between Los Angeles and Douglas required, in the days before steel-belted radials, a new set of tires which would be ruined, used up, on the desert highways—my father was not encouraged to spend summers at home. In any case, his old room had been taken over by one or more of his four brothers. There were two sisters in Douglas as well; my father was the middle child of seven—eight, if his identical twin, born dead, was numbered among them. It was expected that among this brood my father, at least, would make something of himself, that he would transcend his heritage of Catholic poverty, of desperate, drinking missionaries and senseless, pretty girls who were pregnant at the altar, of car clubs and knife fights and sweltering summer nights when young men were killed in the streets of Douglas for rash words or acts, for making a pass at somebody’s sister. The more urban environment of Southern California, the company of affluent boys with whom he ate and showered and shared his dorm room, and with whom he played a more civilized version of football than the one to which he was accustomed, was undoubtedly a shock. Surely he found himself out of place and time and feeling. But he was determined to earn the respect of his father, to succeed, however that was accomplished, and to go to college as no one else in his family had done.
Probably my mother seemed, on the appearance of things, to fit in with those aspirations. Not that my father’s attraction to her was so calculated. No, I think that she must simply have represented all that was so nearly out of reach for him: wealth and culture and, yes, breeding. And of course, even if she was not actually beautiful, she did have that ineffable, incalculable something that made us all believe she was.
When he was older, my father would describe my mother in those years of her late adolescence as a sleek cat, feline of eye and grace, and mysterious. She was able to convey her essentially empty heart and mind as unfathomable, deep rather than depthless. She was fashionably voluptuous and small-waisted. She came of old money, and her parents were British subjects, a fact not without moment to a boy of humble Irish origins: peat bogs, potato famines. My father was always hungry, and there was a lot of food in my grandparents’ house: a pantry crammed with things he liked, some of which—the pickled herring, the matzoth and fish balls and little packages of kosher soup mix—he’d never before encountered. For, of course, my mother was Jewish. But this was more curiosity than impediment; after all, her parents, and mine, since they later raised me, were not orthodox: they weren’t even practicing beyond their habitual, reflexive observance of the Day of Atonement. Still, she was probably one of the first Jews he ever met.
They found one another at a play, my parents, my mother and my father, whom I recall seeing together on less than ten occasions, their last encounter being when he was simply an observer and she the observed, a body in a casket. It seems appropriate, their meeting at a play, because my parents were actors—not in the vocational sense, but in that neither subscribed to any honesty of heart. They were the kind of people who fooled themselves even as they fooled others. They came together briefly for their own drama, and then separated, leaving a mystery that tormented my family for years. What had happened between them? Who had they been together that so ruined them when they were apart? We never spoke such questions aloud, but they were fodder for years of private, anxious speculation.
On that night long ago, during that play, after that play, perhaps in some way infected by the romantic intrigue of lovers long dead, my teenage father and mother embarked on a fateful, irreversible flirtation that culminated in pregnancy, wedlock, divorce and perhaps, ultimately, death. At least while she was dying, my mother was not above accusing my father of torturing her. She said that it was because of him that she no longer wanted to live, and that during the last years of her life he had taken his revenge on her, had sullied everything she valued: their love and their only child. But, then, my mother was not a woman who could ever accept responsibility, not for herself or her fate, and certainly not for me, whom she gave to her own mother, but like an Indian gift, one she constantly threatened to take back.