Monday, December 7, 2009

The Devil She Knew [February 15, 2007]

Hoping not to be slaughtered in a pogrom, Celia Kaufman’s family brought her to Minnesota from the environs of Odessa, Russia, sometime around the turn of the last century. By age 20, she’d married her cousin John Ned Kaufman and had my mother, the first of her four children, one of whom died in infancy.

The Kaufmans were pretty nearly penniless through the first two-thirds of their marriage. They commonly had to vacate rented premises in the dead of night to elude impatient landlords to whom they owed more money than they had. They came out to Los Angeles in the ‘30s and opened a diner in what is now the heart of the barrio. I have no more clear an idea of what drew them to LA than what had made their immigrant parents trudge nearly halfway across the American continent, rather than pitching their tents in New York’s Lower East Side, for instance. I do know that the diner failed and that they were soon on their way back to the Midwest.

Being a penniless failure at everything he touched apparently made John Ned Kaufman an angry man, one commonly carried home bloody and semi-conscious from brawls. But then, right after Prohibition was rescinded, as I understand it, he made a quick fortune in wholesale liquor, and moved his family to the swankiest part of Minneapolis that would have Jews. His three children attended the same high school as the Andrews Sisters. He was dead at 42.

Celia Kaufman was effectively my only grandmother. My paternal grandmother, Rose Bishop (presumably the over-anglicised version of her real surname), the daughter of Latvian immigrants, had made an enemy for life of my mother when, right after their marriage, my parents lived briefly with my dad’s parents. My mother had fewer and fewer compunctions as the years went on about telling me what a jerk my dad was, and never had any at all about assuring me that Grandma Rose didn’t deserve my affection.

Not that I was crazy about having to go over to Gram’s (as I called Celia). Her younger daughter, the gorgeous Doris, had developed a crippling psychosomatic condition (and had a child out of wedlock, I think) before I was born. Doris’s and my mother’s kid brother Marty, the eventual suicide, kept to himself. Gram and my mother spent the whole of our every visit speaking ill of their mutual acquaintances, my mother very much more energetically. I lay on the floor reading Gram’s Readers Digests while they ridiculed and reviled, reviled and ridiculed — and then argued heatedly about money. My mother would invariably have brought something or other for Gram, who would try to insist on paying her back for it. It went on for hours. There was no perceptible trace of affection between them.

When I began university I went over to Gram’s to study a few times. She was invariably delighted to have me. I visited her occasionally in early adulthood, and divined that the biggest part of her identity as a Jew was paranoia. The Yiddish I heard her and my parents lapsing into for a couple of syllables at a time every now and then was apparently a dialect of their own invention; no Yiddish speaker I’ve ever met knows any of the words I remember them using. She got it into her head that Jane Fonda was anti-Israel (it was actually Vanessa Redgrave who’d spoken out against Zionism), and I couldn’t change her mind.

I didn’t make much secret of the fact that I found visiting her rather a chore. She often rewarded me anyway with a package of delicious homemade blintzes and knishes. Savouring them, I’d resolve to try to be more patient with her, more solicitous. By the next time I saw her, my resolution would have ebbed away.

She got Alzheimer’s. My mother moved her into a nursing home not far from my last home in Los Angeles. Visiting, I found her frightened and confused. She took her empty handbag with her everywhere, and seemed to believe she was in legal trouble. She would ask, tremulously, what she’d done to be put in “this place”. I found it heartbreaking, and my visits became less and less frequent.

The last time I saw her, she was in a snake pit of a convalescent hospital in Santa Monica. I was visiting another resident of the place -- my dad, who’d had his stroke by then, and ceased to be able to walk.

Always expecting a catastrophe, my mother wouldn’t “let” him come home from the hospital. Throughout my boyhood, we only ever patronised one restaurant, the Chatam on Westwood Blvd, not because it was any good, but because my mother felt that it made more sense to be assured of a mediocre meal than to risk a worse one, and my dad couldn’t bring himself to challenge her. In the late 80s, when she and my dad finally got around, after 25 years, to landscaping their back yard, they hired a landscaper with whom several of the neighbours had had problems.

There was no breaking the devil-she-knew’s stranglehold on my mother. It only made sense that she’d stick my dad in with my grandmother. Forget how it must have demoralised him, being surrounded by patients his mother-in-law's age.

Gram looked bedraggled and completely befuddled that last time I saw her, and I, already in considerable emotional disrepair from my visit with my dad, thought trying to chat would be to open a can of worms probably best left sealed.
I can’t begin to calculate the shame I’ve suffered as a result of that decision.

Of course, it pales in comparison to having allowed my dad to die in that snake pit. Yes, yes, it was my parents’ decision, rather than my own. But I should have intervened. I knew full well that my dad was no more capable of spending an extra dime on himself than I was of waterskiing on the ceiling. I wheeled him over to other places (my mother’s unflinching expectation of catastrophe precluded his actually coming home; what would happen, in view of his incapacity, if there were a fire or something?), but even the cheapest was a few bucks per month more than the snake pit. My dad had never played golf, which he loved, on anything other than the most threadbare public course. He’d denied himself even a small lathe when, in early retirement, he discovered he enjoyed pottery. And he was intent on dying exactly as he’d lived, with minimal fiscal consequences.

But this is meant to be about Celia Kaufman. You have to wonder about the parenting skills of one whose sanest child was my mother. Did she fail to defend them from John Ned in the days of his pennilessness and implacable rage? Was she in considerable part responsible for my mother's inability to live happily in the world -- and thus, responsible iin smaller part for my own incapacities? (It is my bitter experience that, no matter how hard and how consciously we may try to protect our children from the horrors to which we were ourselves exposed, we invariably wind up replicating some of them. I can easily picture my Brigitte being no less miserable accompanying me to visit my mother in her sheltered housing in Santa Rosa every Friday afternoon after school than I'd been reading Readers Digest while my mother and her own dished and dished.) I nonetheless cherish Celia Kaufman's memory, and hope every night that somewhere in space and time my loving thoughts will somehow find and cheer her.

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