Staring out the window above the kitchen sink, I absentmindedly swirled a pale yellow sponge around one of the heavy copper saucepans my husband, Zack, and I had received from my sisters as a wedding gift. Outside, our next door neighbor, Joey, dismantled his motorcycle, his warm breath smoky puffs in the cold, dusky air. His grease streaked hands moved quickly under the cycle’s silver belly.
That’s how close our walls were to his – I could see the grease on his hands and his left cheek, making a river through the stubble. Hell, I could even see the flash of turquoise underwear through the slightly shredded seat of his Levi’s. “Spitting distance,” as my grandmother would say, shaking her head, whenever she spoke of the tenements in Brooklyn. “Spitting distance,” my mother said as she stood in this very spot helping me dry dishes when she and my father visited last month.
“You didn’t grow up in a place like this,” she sniffed. “Why would you move here?”
I didn’t really have an answer for her, but to be fair we were not discussing a bad neighborhood. Working class, yes – but, very close knit. Just kissing Boston, people watched out for each other. Vans lined the street with names like Charlie’s Handyman Service detailed on the side. The ocean spilled up on the sand at the end of our block and summer seashell hunting was the only looting the neighborhood saw. On warm nights the heavy seaweed and salt air wrapped around everything; a scent I missed terribly as soon as it left.
When my parents came to visit us, I tried to picture how my mother felt the first time my grandparents took the Ford Tempest out for a ride to the suburbs. Marrying a dentist was the biggest coup ever accomplished on my mother’s side of the family. The Bergs talked about it for years. “And, did you see him?” They whispered at Passover. “So handsome, he looks like a young Gregory Peck.” My mother simply smiled and drank it all in. She didn’t need a good job. She didn’t need to go to college. All she really needed to do was keep a nice house. And, she did. Every Friday when I swung through the door from school, the floors shined and the furniture gleamed. The smell of challah baking and chicken soup simmering layered over Lemon Fresh Pine Sol and assaulted my senses. My mouth watered and my stomach grumbled.
For a long time, I thought that was what moms did. They were there when you walked in, waiting with a plate of cream cheese and jelly sandwiches cut in neat quarters. I learned the reality when I started going to my friend’s houses, the latch key kids, as they were called in those days. We sat on the floor of their family rooms and ate popcorn, kernels flying all over, getting stuck in the shag carpet. We played tug of war with Barbie dolls, their heads popping off and rolling under the couch.
One day riding home from my friend’s house in our shiny black, state of the art Cadillac I asked my mother, “Why are you there when I get home from school? None of my friends’ mothers are home.”
“And a lot of your friends’ fathers aren’t home either – ever. Do you think that has something to do with it, Grace? Their mothers have to work. I don’t. You have a mother, a father and three sisters. Be grateful.”
I stared out the window at the streaking Christmas lights, then played with the electric buttons on the side of the seat that made it slide back and forth, up and down – still a novelty to me. Her answer had seemed good enough at the time, but my mother kept talking.
“You are all my priority. My job is being there for you at all times. Understand?” she asked emphatically.
“What do you do while we’re at school?” I asked, hoping that she’d admit to a glamorous secret lifestyle – private investigator solving crimes between 8:30 am and 3:30 pm, or maybe fashion designer, clothing the world’s most fabulous women in her free time. I waited for her answer, chewing lightly on my thumbnail.