Look what the postman brought you, says my mother, holding out a worn manila envelope, covered with the familiar strong, black, smartly angled slashes of alphabet letters that create names and addresses. I recognize my name, and our address. My mother, the consummate educator, has already taught me to read, to write both cursive and print. I recognize his sloping scrawl. Do you want to open it? I shake my head, no, looking downward.
I sit at a miniature replica dining room table placed in the corner of the bedroom that I share with my mother in our tiny wartime construction apartment. I am aware that she is watching me. I look with some awe at her familiar bronze chestnut hair swept up from the back, and twirled around to form a pompadour in front, then fastened in that familiar ’40s ’do. I can sense her sky-blue eyes gazing tenderly at me, watching me at play.
The table is set with tiny flower-patterned porcelain dishes and elaborately pattern-stamped tin tableware; an assortment of porcelain-faced dolls in delicately hand-tailored ruffled dresses sit around the table as if waiting for refreshments. I am the mommy in this scenario, waiting to feed my babies. I may play at being mommy, but carefully wrought bronze sausage curls brought up to the rear of my head and held by a large taffeta bow, of pink, yellow, apple green, and forget-me-not blue plaid clearly define me as the child.
One of my dolls wears the exact replica of my own outfit, an organdy pinafore of pale yellow, embroidered with tiny rosettes and miniature pale green leaves, over a soft cotton dress with a Peter Pan collar and short puffed sleeves. My mother has carried on the tradition of the old country, where you were a scholar, a teacher, a farmer, or a tailor. Her father and his father were farmers and furriers, tailors; her mother a seamstress. Although she is a teacher, atavistic memory or just plain DNA has persevered, and her exquisite needlework does her ancestors proud.
My mother carefully rips the package open, removing a small round black disc. Daddy has sent you another song, she says, feigning delight, when it is easy to see that she is feeling only loneliness and despair. Do you want to hear it? Yes, I nod, obediently, and she pulls a shabby and faded, nearly colorless square suitcase from beneath the bed and opens the simple latch, producing a small phonograph. She takes the tatty electrical cord and plugs it into the wall. She places the black disc on the spindle in the center of the turntable, and turns a black knob to a mark stamped in tiny white letters against the faded brown faux leather. Meanwhile, I patently ignore both my mother and the phonograph as with intense deliberation I go through the elaborate charade of feeding each of the dolls tiny spoonfuls of air, moving the spoon from miniature china cup to pursed porcelain lip.
There is a sudden burst of noise, a scraping, scratching sound, and a rough disarming static, and we both jump, startled, looking at each other. I giggle, and my mother smiles softly, indulgently, as our eyes lock. I can literally feel the current of love that passes between us. All at once we hear that familiar deep rich baritone, strictly a capella, “From the halls of Mon-te-zu-u-ma to the shores of Trip-o-li, we will fight our country’s ba-at-tles, on the land and on the sea. . . .”
My mother wipes at a tear that trickles across her cheek, threatening to land on her only silk blouse, which she wears with each of her carefully tailored suits when she teaches her classes at P.S. 76, across the Bronx. In a corner next to an ancient Singer sewing machine and an assortment of colored threads and sewing implements, there is an entire library of patterns: McCalls, Butterick, Vogue. She cannot pass a fabric store without entering, and despite vows of abstinence, never leaves without some fresh pattern or woven treasure tucked resolutely under her arm to add to her growing collection, visions of completed sewing projects dancing in her mind, creating a momentary respite from thought and daily stress. Some intense inner force has directed her to carefully choose the particular fabric she has used to create her smashing suit, from the vast stash of worsteds, wools, gabardines, and more that are carefully stored in dresser drawers, closet shelves, in an assortment of bags and cardboard boxes. My mother’s collections are everywhere.
I go back to feeding my dolls as if nothing has occurred, my face a tight mask. There has been no package, no record, no song; I have not heard the voice of my father, whose face I would not even remember if I did not have photos placed all around me; a dumb black plastic record is not my father. I force all thoughts of Daddy and records and songs from my mind. I am totally engrossed in my occupation, being the momma, and a great feeling of tenderness flows through me. But an instant later, a strange heat unexpectedly begins to seep through my body, up into my face. I am aware that I am clenching my eyes and cheeks. I cannot identify or control the emotions that rush up in me, but suddenly I am grabbing the disc from the twirling turntable, the needle is scraping across it, the grating, irritating sound is meshed with that of my fingernails skittering over the disc and I have knocked it to the floor, where it shatters, splitting into several jagged sections. There is a moment of absolute silence.
My mother carefully picks up the pieces. “Daddy will send you another record; don’t worry,” she says, with tense studied patience. “It’s okay. I understand,” she says. She puts one hand on her chest the other encompasses the cracked pieces of the record. Her face says that she feels as though a similar crack has begun to travel across her chest. She takes a deep breath, and continues blindly with her efforts to clean up the broken plastic pieces. “Life goes on,” she murmurs. There is a war on. She shoves the suitcase with its phonograph back under the bed. She leaves the room, overcome with emotion. I can feel that she does not want me to see her upset. I hug my own chest, needing to feel her arms around me, needing to absorb her warmth, to feel her consolation, but I am alone. Except I have my babies.
After my mother leaves the room I take a deep breath and purse my lips, sticking out my chin. I continue resolutely to pursue my favorite and customary occupation. I slip into the kitchen, push a chair over to the cupboard, and scan the assortment of foodstuffs in colorful cardboard boxes, finally choosing one. It will be baby food, anyway, no matter what its actual purpose was meant to be. Somewhere in another room I can hear the soft desperate sounds of my mother’s sobs. Ignoring them with quiet deliberation, I climb down and carefully open the top of the box, spooning out two tablespoons of flakes, and then reverse my steps to return the box to its home.
I add a few drops of water fetched from the bathroom tap to the flakes, mixing the mess until it has a creamy consistency. I proceed to feed my babies, for real, stuffing the truly nasty stuff into their delicate porcelain faces, between their tiny teeth, and down into their stuffed cloth bodies. I murmur customary little words of love and endearment, encouragement, and consolation so familiar to me, as I perform my maternal chore. I am so engrossed in my activity that I fail to hear my mother return.
“What are you doing?” asks my mother with a sharp edge to her voice. “Those dolls will be ruined.” Already, a dark stain is spreading across their muslin chests. The actual value of material things appears to have a most serious importance. “They’re not dolls, Mommy,” I answer scathingly, shaking my curls. “They are babies, my babies.” I kneel and put my arms around the bunch of them, drawing them together, pulling them out of their seats onto the table, upsetting the carefully arranged dishes, and sob into their collective meticulously fabricated artificial hairdos. And I will spoil them if I want to. And babies need real food, not just air, I think silently. Babies don’t need packages, and songs on records, babies need both a mommy and daddy. And babies need lots of hugs. Fat, choking tears are welling up in a giant bubble in my chest, threatening to flood my cheeks. I don’t want any more presents, says the tiny voice in my head, I just want my daddy. I am unable to express these feelings out loud; they stick in my throat in a great loathsome lump.
I watch as my mother steels herself against the advent of my great sobs and sluices of tears that refuse to appear. I imagine that this is how she feels, missing Daddy, emotion welling up inside of her threatening to split her face, to explode from her mouth, her nose, her eyes, because this is how I feel. But I am as still and rigid and cold as one of my porcelain dolls, my face frozen into its familiar mask of sadness. I gulp silently and take a huge breath.
“When I grow up,” I say in my tiny singsong telling-a-story voice, mimicking my favorite storyteller, my mother, “I’m going to have lots of babies; real babies. And they will have a mommy, me, and a daddy. And they will all be together, always, and they will love each other, and take good care of each other, and never be apart. The end,” I say firmly.
My mother pulls me onto her lap, wraps her arms around me, her cheeks damp, her eyes dreamy and soft, her voice crooning love. “When Daddy comes home,” she says tenderly, “we will buy a great big house in the country.” Her eyes are somewhere far away as she reaches out to a side table piled high with papers and pulls out a huge familiar stack of magazines and pages neatly ripped from some of them, and we start looking through them. This is a familiar and comforting ritual to me, and I am very willing to play this game, sitting close to my mother, the warmth of her seeping into me through the fabric of our clothes, included in her world. Look at this, and this, and this. We dream about rooms, colors and patterns and fabrics, collections and accessories, French doors, furniture and patios, ponds and streams and waterfalls and gardens.
“What about my baby sister?” I ask her, getting excited, joining her dream with mine. “My brother. Can we get babies, too, real babies, for our new house?”
My freckled, pigtailed, skinny little friend Linda who lives down at the end of the long institutional hallway in her family’s apartment behind the last door has come running toward me, excitement pouring from every pore, eyes wide and bright, arms waving and askew, a huge smile splitting her lightly freckled face. “Guess what,” she calls, “my mother just came home, and we have a new baby sister. Come and see her,” she cries out joyfully, and I follow silently, sensing an immutable excitement rising in my chest. So I stand at the head of this white, lace-covered bassinette with its pink ribbons, its tiny lace-trimmed pillow embroidered with a minute lamb and a pink and blue rose on one corner, and stare at this tiny perfection that is Linda’s new baby sister, and a miniscule seed is planted deep inside of me. I can feel it down there, a tiny tingling kernel of need and longing that begins to grow, has its own voice, demands to be heard. Baby dolls will no longer suffice.
“The Record” is an excerpt from “An Untenable Fragrance of Violets, A Trilogy,” an independently published autobiography that is available on Amazon.com. Lynne Hefner Ferrante is an artist who lives in East Hampton. Her Web site is lynnehefnerferrante.com.