New Car

My father’s first car in the United States was a golden Buick. He bought it fresh off the lot in 1968. The whole family went to pick it up. Our landlord had been planning to clean the garage out for us, but hadn’t quite gotten around to it yet. So when we pulled up to the two-flat were we lived my father was delighted to see a parking space directly out front.

As he pulled in, the sound of crushed metal resounded, smersh.

HEEEEEE,’ It’s my mother from the backseat. I can’t reproduce this in print exactly, but it’s the sound of fear made on the inhale, and when I hear it I lose my reason entirely. The last time she produced it, I was a grown woman making Thanksgiving turkey for my husband’s family. ‘When did you put it in the oven?’ she asks ‘ Eight-thirty’ I reply.

HEEEEEEEE,’ she says, and whatever common sense I have flies right out the window. Despite the fact that I know that it takes seventeen minutes per pound, and that I have plenty of time, my heart starts pounding, and I overdo the bird.

She must have had the same effect on my father because he pulls forward abruptly, only to smash the front fender in. We all pile out of the car. He is red with fury, my mother is a nervous wreck, my is sister whining, I am laughing my head off. Both ends of the car are crushed like eggshells. My father takes one look at me, laughing, and slaps me upside the head.

Sometime later my father decides he will save money if he buys a car that gets better mileage, and so he trades the golden Buick for a red Fiat. The Fiat might be a great little car in its own country but during the interminable mid-western winters and flooded springs, it was a disaster from the first day. The first day, now infamous in family lore, was when he drove it over to my Uncle Steve’s house to show it off. As he was leaving, he put the car in reverse instead of drive, and promptly backed into my uncle’s Cadillac, narrowly missing Steve, who had to jump out of the way to avoid being killed.

‘ I thought he was playing around,’ was my uncle’s only comment on the situation.

I myself did not witness this. What I remember are summer days, driving without air conditioning in the sweltering heat to  fly ridden picnic grounds on beaches, and in forest preserves where my parents would meet their friends. Invariably, no one would remember to bring silverware or plates. They had fun though, the men playing soccer, the women chatting. As the only older child present, I would stalk about alone all afternoon, since I was pudgy and my mother thought I needed exercise, swatting mosquitoes, and scratching my already bitten flesh.

Returning home, my sister then a toddler, would always get car sick as we slowly made our way back amidst miles long colonnades of bumper- to- bumper Sunday traffic. Of course we could never open the windows to air out the stink because of the dreaded Yugoslav scourge, promaja or draft, as it is commonly known.

On one particular evening we were caught in a sudden downpour. Flash flood warnings were being issued as we hurriedly left the picnic grounds. We made good time until somewhere around Cumberland Avenue, when traffic began slowing down. The drivers stopped honking and didn’t seem nervous anymore. Instead they patiently waited to take their turn. I was curious as to the reason until we approached. Then I saw that a lake of water had pooled in the underpass and even the largest American cars were having trouble getting through it.

When our turn came, the Fiat started out bravely, and swishing through the water spluttered to a halt midway under the bridge. My father tried everything to start it up again, but was growing more and more impatient by the minute, evidenced by his reddening face and irritable demeanor. Having learned a lesson last time, I decided not to say anything.

Suddenly I heard my mothers dreaded, ‘ HEEEEEEEE!’  I looked down, and saw water flooding the inside of the car. As it poured in, my sister started screaming, my mother began offering up ideas, my father became more and more nervous, and bigger cars began to pass us by since the Fiat was small enough  for a tandem drive -by.

Needless to say, each time that happened, the Fiat would be deluged. We were stuck for some time, the water rising up to our seats until a kindly Black man parked in front of us, got out, chained our car to his and pulled the Fiat to dry land.

Black people were the only Americans who ever stopped to help us during our many car mishaps, which says a lot, considering Martin Luther King had been shot not too long before.

At the Beach With Mother

My mother is a very generous person. She likes to see that her children are living well even when times are hard. She always has a connection which will invariably help her score free tickets to cultural events, discounted designer clothing and incredible trips. So far I have accepted the clothing and the ballet tickets but turned down the trips. I passed on China and Egypt but when I saw the deluxe accommodations she had stayed at, and places she had visited, I felt more than a twinge of regret.

The truth is, I would have loved to see those sites, but I wasn’t sure that I could endure two non-stop weeks with Mother. So last winter, which was interminably long and unendurable, and after begging my husband to go with me to no avail, I broke down and booked a one week trip to the Mayan Riviera with Mother. Its not that I don’t have friends, I do, but owing to circumstances, no one could make the trip with me. My husband, less forgivably, loathes the beach. Of course, as Mother goes so does my sister, Layla, who never leaves her side.

I made a reservation at a beautiful old style resort with palapa roofs, left over from the days, not long past, when that part of the world was quiet and totally unspoiled. New hotels have grown up all around, as has the town, in my memory a sleepy little fishing village. With all the construction going on, people from all over Mexico have flocked to the area looking for work, bringing their habits with them. Unfortunately, this includes their animals, left homeless or allowed to wander around at will.

After we arrived we were assigned a beautiful casita close to the beach. We unpacked, went for a swim and a long walk along the shore. So far, so good, I thought. It was only after dinner that I was to get a preview of things to come when my mother made her first friend, a pregnant tabby that lived on the property. I love animals, they are pure and true and I have always preferred them to people. I love them but my mother is positively crazy about them. During World War II, she housed and fed twelve cats at a time when there was not enough food for people to eat. And so not having anything to give to the kitty, she began to audibly sigh and make empathic noises. Even when we were tucked in for the night, mother kept asking if we thought that the cat was still out there.

In the morning, before the sun rose, she was already up urging us onward. My sister merely rolled over, ignoring her, and I, ever the voice of reason, pointed out that the beach was cold until the sun came up and that the restaurant didn’t open until seven-fifteen, giving her about an hour and a half to kill.

As she herded us out the door at seven sharp, her true purpose was revealed. Her kitty, no stranger to the predilections of gringo tourists, was firmly ensconced on the restaurant steps. Seeing the buffet, Mother immediately hatched a plan. We would overload our plates, eat a bit and save the rest for kitty. This worked for me, since despite having a Mediterranean figure I have little appetite. My sister on the other hand, needs a lot of fuel. And so the second part of Mother’s plan was revealed. We would diet. Since breakfast and dinner were part of our package, we would skip lunch. My sister, looking at her in disbelief, picked a bunch of bananas off of the buffet.

‘No,’ Mother commanded, ‘ One banana for you Layla, two for Lil.’

I’ve always played well by myself, having been an only child for almost eight years. But my sister needs direction, or so my mother believes. However, she was going to make a valiant effort to break her habit and leave us alone. And so I arranged our lounges under the best palapas, spread out our towels, went for a swim, a walk, another swim, read my novel, and so on while my sister plopped herself right under the sun. By afternoon she was red as a lobster and by evening, one leg was swollen to twice its normal size due to sun poisoning. Mother saw that she was going to have to take charge after all.

That evening, we saved half our dinner for her cat, who knowingly, brought a friend to share the spoils. So began our regular routine of stealing food. This was intensified the next day. Walking up the beach a couple of miles we found a homeless dog who was living on a yet undeveloped property, and who followed us for some distance looking forlorn. At breakfast we had to pile even more food on our plates, particularly sausages and ham, since our dependents were multiplying. I hated to think what the waiters thought of us.

Additionally, Mother had taken to directing my sister, throughout the day. ‘ Layla, put sunscreen on, pull chair out of the sun, put chair in sun, get up take valk, go for swim, use towel to dry so you don’t catch cold,’ she intoned in a continuous drone.

At night when Layla is out of commission, she directs me, usually with a deep sigh; am I asleep, she wants to know. Not any more. Then we begin, air on, air off.  But when she says, ‘ Layla, I see you reading novel, why aren’t you studying French?’ I know I have to get away from them. I pull my chaise under the neighboring tree, out of earshot. Mother takes one look at me and says,  ‘Lil, that coconut vill fall on your head.’ I hope so, I think to myself.

That afternoon, Mother’s dog brings a friend, an emaciated bitch who has just given birth. Scandalized, Mother insists we walk to the grocery store for fresh meat and so we trek four miles under the blazing sun to town and back. The dogs are happy and gobble up the fresh meat while my mother moans with pity,‘ YOY, YOY, YOY, Vat vil hapin to dem ven ve go avay?’ she asks.

That’s when I blow my stack. In truth I too am worried but I don’t say that. Instead I tell her that she has obsessive- compulsive disorder. She waits until my tirade is over and says with great dignity, ‘Lil, you have bad temper, just like Daddy.’

When we get back to our spot on the beach, there is a bird cawing in my coconut tree, ‘Do you tink dat brrrd is hungry?’ she asks. It’s hopeless, and I resign myself.

At the airport my sister says that she had a really good time, I say so too. Mother hesitates, ‘It vas good. But next time I go vit my grrrlfrrends.’

Short shorts

Some time ago, a couple of my dear friends asked me to write down a few of the stories that I have told them over the years about my friends and family which they found amusing. I’ll be posting a new story each week for your entertainment. I only hope they’ll read as well as the telling.

Protestant Ethics

When I was living in Oak Park, Illinois, there was a blond girl, whom I’ll call Candice, in my third grade class who went about recruiting children to join her church. Why my atheist parents consented to let me attend is beyond my comprehension. Perhaps it was because my communist father, who had been a party member in Yugoslavia, had to prove to our assigned FBI agent that he was a reformed man although statements such as, ‘History will vindicate Stalin’, often gave him away.

In any case, as the resident foreign weirdo I was thrilled to be asked to any event at all and jumped at the opportunity to go. So every Tuesday evening, Candice’s mother would pick all the kids up in what resembled a white ice cream truck but must have been a sort of proto-SUV.

Inside of the church, which was terribly plain to my eyes and bereft of icons, incense and chanting, the accouterments of my grandparents’ nominal religion, Eastern Orthodoxy, we listened to thunderous sermons of doom and gloom. The preacher’s stormy countenance was only slightly altered for the better when we joined in to sing hymns such as—What can wash away my sins? Nothing but the blood of Jesus.

After the first evening, I was disabused of any romantic notions I may have had concerning American Christianity. Afterward however, we were herded down to the basement, where to my great delight, we indulged in my then twin passions, eating cookies and painting.

Each child was given a wonderful plaster plaque with a Biblical verse inscribed on it in the form of a scroll surrounded by grapes, flowers, various birds and insects, which we were to paint. While our finished work was being judged by a committee of adults, we were given three incredibly large, delicious cookies filled with chocolate chips, the likes of which I had never seen before, since my mother did not allow her children to eat sweets beyond an occasional ice cream cone.

When we finished our cookies and KOOL-Aid, another novelty, prizes were handed out for the best plaque. Try as I might, I never won and only once received honorable mention. I vowed that I would change all that, convinced as I was, that my ability as a colorist was far superior to the winners’. But I never got the opportunity since I inadvertently let it slip that I was attending church primarily because of the cookies.

Candice, enraged at my lack of piety, kicked me out of the group in front of the whole class, as only a virtuous Christian could.