By Myself and Then Some
All I had known of films was Bette Davis and Leslie Howard. (I was in love with him — alas, was never to meet him.) She was my fifteen-year-old idea of perfection — fine actress, dramatic bravery, doomed tragedy, sardonic wit — all an actress should be, and when I cut school I would sit all day in a movie house sobbing through Dark Victory or Jezebel or The Old Maid, smoking in the balcony (I paid for a whole package, so I had to finish it). Forbidden at home, of course — getting sick on tobacco, and Sen-Sen to get the stench out of my mouth so as to go undetected by Mother and Uncle Charlie. One morning my uncle came in to kiss me goodbye before leaving for work and said, 'Have you been smoking?' Shaking, I replied, 'Of course not.' Whereupon he went into the next room to tell my mother he was certain I was smoking — whereupon they both faced me, trembling in my bed. 'We know you have been, we can smell it on your breath.' What had happened to Sen-Sen? — it had failed me for the first time. In a flood of tears I confessed — I had, but I would never do it again! 'Please forgive me — I promise.' Mother: 'You'd better not, a girl your age — disgusting — what kind of a girl do you want to become — nice girls of fifteen don't smoke!' Oh God — would I survive this humiliation!
Tail between the legs for days afterward — Charlie and Mother sniffing daily, trying to detect the evil weed. My first confrontation with the Sam Spade syndrome. Wouldn't I ever grow up — be on my own, free to do what I wished? Wouldn't I ever live alone? The purity of Jewish upbringing — the restrictions that one carries through life being a 'nice Jewish girl' — what a burden. But if you were — and I was — you had it drummed into your head from childhood by your mother, grandmother, uncles, that nice Jewish girls didn't smoke — weren't fast — nice Jewish girls had character. 'Don't chase a boy, ever — if he wants to see you, he'll call; if not, forget him.' But what were you to do if your head was filled with dreams of beauty, glamour, romance, accomplishment, and if you were stuck with being tall, ungainly (Ididn't know I was 'colt-like' until a critic said I was), with big feet, flat chested — too young to have finished high school at fifteen, too inexperienced, shy, frightened to know what to do with a boy when I did have a date? If my dream would only come true, then I would know how to behave, then things would fall into place — wouldn't they?
I wouldn't always be a wallflower. Already there was one boy who had a fantastic crush on me. I went out with him because there was no one else, and I tried to make him part of my romantic dream. He'd kiss me goodnight. He was sweet to me, he was boring, but he did call — I'd better be nice to him. It was soon Christmas, then New Year's, and I didn't want to be alone New Year's Eve — not when my friends had dates — so I went to a party with him on New Year's Eve — just sixteen, sweet sixteen — and we danced to 'Deep Purple' while I pretended he was Leslie Howard. Pretending started early. What a fantasy world — so much better than the real one. We sat on a sofa in the darkened room, he had his arm around me — he kissed me, I guess — all the kids were doing the same thing — 'Happy New Year!' Why wasn't he Leslie Howard just for that moment I looked at him? It wasn't good enough, I thought, to have someone crazy about you if you felt nothing. No — it would not do. I couldn't stand him, couldn't bear to let him touch me. I should have known right then that it would always be the same — I had to be madly in love or utterly revolted. No happy mediums for me! So I started that year — 1941 — deciding not to see him again. I always made out a list of New Year's resolutions and that was one of them. I didn't keep the others, but I did keep that one. No compromises in life for me — I wouldn't settle — I'd rather not go out, just live with my dreams.
Each time I was in love — this was it. The hunger to belong. Imagination is the highest kite that can fly. When you have nothing but dreams, that's all you think about, all that matters, all that takes you away from humdrummery — the fact that your mother was working too hard and didn't have enough in her own life, that your grandmother, loving though she was, wanted you to get a decent job to help your mother, that you didn't have enough money to do anything you wanted to do, even buy a lousy coat for $17.95. Dreams were better — that was where my hope lay — I'd hang on to them, never let go. They were my own.
It wasn't that I was deprived — we just had to live on a strict budget.No, it was that everything I fantasized about had nothing to do with everything I lived. Not a thing! Yet Mother gave me everything —everything she could — more. She was a decent, proud, honorablewoman who despite her struggles never lost her sense of humor. Shejust wanted me to be perfect. She wanted me to have it all, but to knowand to learn while the search was on; to realize that there were otherthings not to lose sight of. She wasn't proud of having to count thepennies — not resentful — just very private about that and everythingelse to do with family ...Continues...