A VOICE FROM THE RIVER, By Maurie Gibson
I was 12 years old in 1960, a princess living in an upper class Jewish suburb of not Beverly, but Cheviot Hills. A seventh grader at Palms Junior High I had the unique experience that year to attend school with kids from nearby “projects” in Culver City. I remember sitting at my desk in Miss Zucco’s homeroom class checking out the boys. There were the Cheviot kids, clean cut, Ivy league shirts, fresh from their Bar Mitzvahs. And there were the Mexicans – swarthy, greasy haired, smelling of cigarettes. Mexican girls wore ratted hair 4 inches high that hid razor blades for after school fights.
I liked the different kids. While all my friends were Jewish, I felt a kinship, a bond with the project kids. They were already grown up, some girls even having left school to have babies. I was still being treated like a child and I thought the project kids were smarter, knew more about life.
It all changed the next year. Parents from Cheviot were irate that their children attended a mixed income level school. Some ordinance was passed and the boundaries of the school changed with the project kids going to Culver City schools while the Beverlywood kids were bussed over to Palms.
Beverlywood was sort of on par with Cheviot but the homes were older and smaller. Suddenly Palms Jr. High was no longer a smorgasborg of cultures. Everybody looked like everybody else. I missed seeing how high the Mexican girls hair got teased and decided to rat my own hair into a beehive as a statement. But I didn’t stand out much. All my friends began to wear big hair too.
I had an older sister who believed, like my mother, that all girls should be virgins and even after marriage stay a little virginly. My sister was not into rock and roll and my mother had no musical passion. I swung to, twisted, jerked and slow danced and loved it all, the music, the parties, the boys, making out. None of the women around me,. my mother, my aunts or grandmothers seemed to even be related to me. I would write in my diary that I thought I had been adopted. No one thought like me. Among my friends, I usually liked “different” girls, girls who made out with boys a lot, or funny, interesting girls. When I fell for a boy it was with passion. I knew the highs and lows of love at 13. I didn’t mind much that I couldn’t share feelings and agonies with my mother or sister. Keeping a diary seemed like all I ever needed.
I saw my mother on the purple chaise lounge in her bedrooom most days when I came home from school. I would walk down the hall to my bedroom and glimpse her “resting”. She might murmur hello to me or “how was your day” but it was clear that I had merely disturbed her. It didn’t matter though because on the phone with my best friend I would talk for hours.
My sister had gone away to school when I was in eighth grade to a University. My father, a ladies sportswear manufacturer, was terribly busy always with his business. I liked the excitement when he brought home buyers to entertain. That’s when the bar got opened up. They weren’t Jews, these buyers, but successful, single men and women like in the movies. My house had an energy when these people came in – a different beat to them – and I wanted to be a lot more like them then my parents.
In 9th grade, things started to shift. For one thing my sister was coming home to marry a guy she had met at school. My father was busier then ever but he and my mother seeemed to be having a problem. I never saw tears or heard fights but their bedroom door was closed a lot. One night I got up to get some water and saw my father bedded down in the den alone. Something was definitely up. But nothing was said and I never asked anyhody anything.
My sister and her fiance came home and I thought they were beautiful, Kennedy-like, perfect. My sister had lost weight, wore eyeliner and smiled a lot. My about to be brother in law looked like Peter Lawford even though he was Jewish, from New York. I felt sure that this was a sign that I too would have the perfect husband someday, the perfect life. That we would all be like and look like President Kennedy and that the world would be our playground.
It was the summer of ’64 when I began to feel awkward. I looked at the other girls on the beach with me. They looked incredibly free in their bikini’s. I, on the other hand, felt like a strange, blimp like creature in a one piece bathing suit. For one thing it was my hair. Most of the popular girls had straight hair, light hair. I had tight, almost frizzy wavy black hair for which I never forgave my father. His gene had carried over to me. My sister got my mother’s straight hair which made me eternally jealous. And then there was the problem of my breasts – they were large – a D cup by that time. I couldn’t wear cute little bikini tops because I was too self conscious. The biggest problem I battled was my weight. Plump, round, vuloptuous, I began to realize my life would be about dieting forever. And I loved to eat chocolate ice cream in a very serious way. In my bridesmaid’s dress, what I saw in the mirror at my sister’s wedding disgusted me.
In early November 1964 I was in high school. I wore big purses and was once again happy to be in a more diverse school. We had colored kids, poor kids, famous kids, and there were more choices to be whoever we wanted to be. I wanted to be, more then anything, a Lorelle. Social clubs were the thing. If you were smart and got good grades, it was the Fidelts. If you were pretty and smart and ambitious, you went Sans Parelles. The Lorelles were named for Loreli, goddess of love and beauty, and they were what I considered the gorgeous, gonna marry successful guys, creme de la creme. I became a Lorelle and began to feel pretty. My weight was still plumpish but I was cute, wore my hair straight (after ironing it), and put on a snobbish attitiude. I knew how to be a bitch too.
The day of the JFK assasination, a part of me died too. I remember being in the courtyard around 10:00 a.m. when we all had a “nutrition” break. When it was announced over the loud speaker that the President was dead, it was as if consciousness changed forever. We all slowed down, walked, talked, breathed slower. We walked as if we each carried a great and a heavy burden. Time didn’t stop, but the innocence stopped, the old system of life stopped. When we began to breathe again in a normal way, we felt differently, we were more focused and suspicious. There was anger in our shock. I stopped going to Lorelle meetings. And when I stood at the special place on the school yard with my club sisters, I felt ridiculous.
My father slept on the den couch until my mother finally made her decision to not kick him out. He was on the verge, I gathered, of quitting the garment business. He couldn’t compete with the mini-skirt manufacturers, the juniors, the avante garde trends. My father at heart was a Jewish Dick Nixon, pro Viet Nam, pro old guard, and he didn’t have it to be flexible, to accept new fashion, new trends. For the first time money became an issue in my house and I thought I might not be able to go to college.
In my senior year I would go to my room as usual, see my mother on her lounge, and not even get a courtesy hello. It was clear she was sleeping a lot. Wondering finally what that was about, one day when she was out shopping, I went into my parents bedroom. It was a normal thing for me to snoop. I liked going into my parents dresser drawers to find out who they were, what they hid. I found my fathers rubbers, my mother’s diaphram and that had been an exciting discovery. On that afternoon I found my mother’s Valium. In her top drawer I also discovered a note my father had written explaining how sorry he was that he’d had the affair but that nothing meant more to him then my mother, my sister and I.
I stopped ratting my hair. I began to become friendly with a girl who wore no make up and long hair to her waist who listened to Bob Dylan and explained to me what the war was really about. My sister, after having two perfect children, filed for divorce.
One Rosh Hoshana I stood outside Temple with a few friends and their parents. I was talking to nobody in particular when I mumbled something about how I wished I could understand more about what the Rabbi was saying. The father of one my friends, handsome and self confident, looked toward the curb at his new Mercedes and replied “What more is there to understand?”
I still loved to make out and fall in love. Boys though had to blond, light haired at least, just different looking and with a different energy then I had. All the other boys who were dark and looked like me felt like my brothers and I couldn’t comfortably kiss them or feel passion for a family member. I liked surfers although they preferred long blond haired girls with long legs. Music from Black performers still enraptured me. I thought the Beatles music was too juvenile, too pop sounding.
I wasn’t ready for sex or pot but I was ready for change. I began going to Catholic mass. One Christmas, I brought a small tree into my bedroom and told my mother it was a Chanukah bush.
My father and I becam even more estranged now that we were political opposites. There was always something scary about him, something mean and menacing too. I saw him accidently naked once and he looked like an ape to me, hairy and uncivilized. Worse, he didn’t seem to be fatherly. He earned money for us and treated us well to things but he had no real interest in me or my sister. He didn’t like to sit down, talk to me, ask me why I felt the way I did or what was on my mind. If I got a D in Math, he never questionned it. He seemed preoccupied with business or his women. The only time he seemed to care was when he got angry and his anger pushed us away.
My sister’s world was changing in a way I didn’t understand. Why did she wait to have a family before growing? I didn’t understand why she was shattering her old life.
I began to realize that Jesus, like me, rebelled. He saw the way things were at the time – corrupt and meaningless – and wanted more meaning, a real connection to life. I identified with him, and with Buddha and Zen masters and the new sounds I was hearing on the radio.
My mother didn’t sleep as much but it was like she had a part to play in something and she wasn’t giving that up. She would continue to be what had worked for her all her life. She would be naive and Pollyana like and have her husband and its accessories and look to those things to bolster her whenever depression engulfed her.
There was just enough money for me to attend college for a few years. I went far away to a small liberal arts school. I began to write stories and act in plays and have sex and work my way out of the Cheviot Hills mindset. I protested the war, battled male chauvinism. Phone conversations with my father became battlegrounds. I watched my parents grow old without understanding and I saw my sister go into unending therapies and analysis.
I remember I had taken acid one day and was sitting on a small hill overlooking the Hudson River. The LSD was just coming on, I was in a yoga position going into a psychelic visual playground. I felt beneath me my Jewish roots and above me I saw in the clouds the bearded, benevolent face of Christ. His voice came through to me from the river bed. The teaching spoke about peoples’ capacities, that we are all born with just so much we can do and carry and give. Some have large vessels and their capacities to give seem endless. Others, like my parents, have simple, smaller cups then I would have liked.
My father died when I was 25. I was unmarried, living alone, struggling for money and a creative life. On the afternoon of his funeral I drove through Cheviot Hills for a peek at our old house. Totally re-done and remodeled now, I parked my car across the street just to look and remember the way it used to look. A boy of about 12 emerged from the house. As the door opened I could see our old slate entry way still intact. The boy then stood on the front steps watching me. I could not take my eyes off him. He stood there as if protecting his house and his childhood. It’s as if he were telling me, let me live my life in the house, let me have my innocence. I like it here.