My mother wrote the script for our ideal family, and assigned the roles in accordance with her own needs. Although he hadn’t painted anything in years, my father was the Artist, a role that rescued him from the country-storekeeper category and conferred on us all a certain distinction. My mother was The Competent One. “Mama can do anything,” my father always said, and that was pretty much the case. She cooked, cleaned, baked, gardened, sewed, nursed, entertained, knitted and embroidered and crocheted, worked in my father’s store, all with efficiency and even brilliance. What she needed most, a career outlet of her own, something more significant than painting on silk, more productive of power and regard — that she did not have. So I became my mother’s bound delegate, the one to fulfill her dreams. I was The Clever One. And along with cleverness, I was assigned subsidiary functions necessary to its fruition: industry, obedience, cheerfulness, responsibility. “I can count on Freidele,” my mother would say. “Freidele is always cheerful. Freidele is a perfect child.” How, in the light of these thinly disguised directives, could I admit my fears? How could I acknowledge my own feelings when my mother told me what to feel? “I hate Celia!” I once screamed after a sibling squabble. “You don’t hate her,” my mother corrected. “She’s your sister, and you love her.”
Celia, my sister. What paragraph can contain her, how can I explain her tragedy? In the first book I wrote about our family she scarcely appears. Casual friends asked, “Didn’t you have a sister?” and I’d say, “We’re not close.” The truth was, I could not let that genie out of the bottle. When parts were handed round in our family, my sister Celia got The Pretty One. To understand the bleakness of that assignation, you would have to know that my mother set no store by prettiness, a commodity which, as she had good reason to know, got you nowhere. Pretty was frivolous, pretty was insignificant; it was weak and so, in practice, almost certain to prove bad. As I was expected to toe the line, Celia was expected, almost directed, to disappoint. “Let her have it,” “Let her do it,” my mother would say when my sister, four years older than I, behaved unreasonably. “Show her you’re the big one.” Like all young children, I watched for signs of parental favouritism. My father I saw as even-handed. “Ah, a keppele, what a head!” he would say of me, and of Celia, with affectionate understatement, “A sweetness! She’ll pass in a crowd!” My mother tried to be fair; but her preference and prejudices were clear, even to a five-year-old. I got the heart of the cabbage, the yolky “unborn eggs” in the chicken soup, and the icing spoon to lick. When my mother sold her hand-crocheted coverlet to buy the twenty-volume Book of Knowledge, she said, “Freidele needs it. For her future.” When Celia was twelve, she was — incredibly — sent away from home to live in Winnipeg with a distant cousin because my mother said, she couldn’t be trusted around goyishe boys, gentiles. Many years after the event, I asked my sister how she had felt about the early exclusion from the family. “Nothing,” she said. “It was fine.” Very early she had learned a dangerous survival skill, not seeing what could not be borne. And the unbearable truth — it seems evident to me now — was that for mysterious and complicated reasons, my mother could her firstborn daughter Was this in part because Celia was not her first child? Very early in her marriage, my mother had a son, a thirteen pound baby, stillborn. Losing her son was not, to be sure, my mother’s only trauma. By her own account, she had grown up despised and ignored by a fierce matriarch who valued only male children. The stories she told throughout my childhood were tales of affliction. Both my parents had a vast fund of family anecdotes. But where my father’s were comic or morally uplifting, my mother’s memories of her Russian childhood rivalled Grimm in their cruelty and pain. While her brothers played, she gathered firewood, carried grain for the horses and slop for the pigs, dug for potatoes with her bare hands. She picked wild strawberries but never tasted the jam. “Sometimes,” she said, “I got a spoonful of the scum that came to the surface when it was cooking.” My mother was not crushed by this treatment; it seems, if anything, to have strengthened her resolve.
She learned survival early. When Cossacks swept through the village, she fled towards the Orthodox church and melted into a religious procession. (“I’ll carry that cross for you,” she said to a startled worshipper.) One day, picking beets in the garden — she was nine years old — she became aware of a soldier watching. “Come here, krasavetsa,” he called. “I’ll show you a game.” She picked up her basket. He vaulted the gate and carried her, his pretty prize, to the summer house. “I knew what his game would be,” she told me many years later. “You don’t grow up on a farm for nothing.” When I asked why she didn’t fight or scream, she smiled at my innocence. “A grown man and a child? A Russian soldier, a Jewish girl? I wanted to live.” So she sat, terrified but still, on his knee until it was over. Then she wiped away the blood with her torn undershirt and ran to tell her mother. She guessed, correctly, that she would be beaten. “I had to tell,” she explained, “so my mother could take me to the rabbi for a certificate, to explain how I became a woman. Otherwise, who would marry me?”
My mother related these experiences in a matter-of-fact style not much unlike her usual brisk cheerfulness. If, on occasion, I expressed outrage at my grandmother’s harshness. Mother responded with the ritual formulae of filial devotion. “I loved my mother,” she would insist. “There is no day I don’t think of her.”
This last, allowing for some exaggeration, may well have been true. As a child, I wondered only how my mother could repay such unkindness with love. Older, I wondered why she told those shocking stories. Now, at last, I think I understand. My mother had no tolerance for ambiguity; with her, things were black and white, good and bad, never shades of grey. The idea of a bad mother being unacceptable to her, intolerable, she was obliged to see herself as mistreated by a good mother Where then did the denied anger go, and the resentment, and the desire for revenge? I think it went underground. And then, when she was twenty-six, along came my sister, conceived just after my grandmother was found to have inoperable cancer and born a few days before my grandmother’s death.
Celia was raised to take pride in her appearance — and then deprecated as superficial. She was, from my mother’s point of view, a difficult child, stubborn and disobedient. Who is to say which came first, my sister’s recalcitrance or my mother’s rejection? A casual observer might have thought Mother favoured Celia because — to use a skipping image — the rope was held lower for her. She was not expected to come first in class, not required to shine. But of course, in our family lowered standards meant lower regard. Mother accepted from Celia behaviour she never would have countenanced in me.
When I think of my sister during her teenage days, pursued by admirers, the word that comes to me is not cold but cool. Though we shared a bedroom and a bed, I knew almost nothing about her. Whatever strong feelings she possessed lay buried fathoms deep. She showed no emotion when our father’s business failed (again) or when Mother underwent critical surgery for a malignant tumour. She spoke flippantly of the suitors who sometimes wept in our parlour, desperate for her love. “His father’s a janitor,” she said, as if that obliterated the young scientist who begged her to marry him. She accepted without a struggle the announcement that there was no money to pay for her university tuition. (When my father wept, my mother said, “What for? She only wants it to join a sorority and go to dances. Dances she can go to without university.”) At eighteen she was once more, in effect, sent away. My parents returned to the country, I went to live with a favourite aunt — and Celia moved into a rooming house. Though we both remained in Winnipeg, we met seldom.
Winnipeg’s Jewish world was small in those days, the late thirties. By the age of twenty, Celia had exhausted the city’s marriage prospects — this one boring, that one not rich enough. She moved to Toronto, expecting to repeat her social success, and found herself in a big city with lots of good-looking girls. Her letters home — filled with descriptions of clothes and dates — now scarcely concealed an undertone of panic. Twenty-three, twenty-four — and no husband in sight.
At last came a letter with the good news — strangely reported. She had met a Jewish man, from a rich family — coloured telephones in every room. His mother had given her a mink coat, she was shopping for a diamond and would be married shortly. No need for any of us to attend. A premarital clash produced startling revelations. The groom had only one good eye, the other having been knocked out by a brother during an argument. He had been married before; his first wife ended up in a mental institution.
All this, the stuff of melodrama, would have reduced most young women to helpless grief and fury. Not Celia. Her cool was astonishing. She did not telephone in the heat of crisis. Only much later, did we find out that her intended, in a fit of rage, had attacked her physically and been dragged off by employees of his father’s firm. At the time, she sent the briefest possible note. “Dear Mum and Dad: This will come as a surprise but I’ve broken my engagement.” No explanations, no agonies, just an assurance that she was feeling fine and keeping the coat and the ring. Though my sister had always seemed to me utterly unlike my mother, I recognized here a familiar stance. We have no failures in our family. Everything’s under control.
Shortly after this debacle, Celia married. “He carries hundred-dollar bills in his pocket,” she wrote. “He showed me his account books. He is very rich.” Mother sniffed. “As if she understands anything about books!” Soon she had an apartment and a new baby. We received bulletins regulary, all composed in language of such extravagance that the concrete reality of her life was rendered invisible. Her husband was fabulous, the baby gorgeous, the apartment a dream. She was fantastically busy shopping, so much to do. She just hoped that some day I too would have such a terrific husband and a terrific baby and a terrific life. Whom was she trying to convince?
Within a few yeas Celia was playing the lead in her own family drama: attractive young matron with two little girls in matched smocked dresses or frilly pinafores, custom-made. She struck me as a strange parent, obsessed with details of costume, toilet training and diet, but emotionally distant. Anything messy, likely to rumple or stain, she abhorred. So she didn’t cuddle, discouraged play with mud or sand. Every summer she brought her little daughters to my parent’s home in a small Manitoba town. She must have hoped, through her children, to win what had so far eluded her — my mother’s love and approval, at the very least her interest. That never happened. Towards Celia herself, my mother never softened. As for the children — a curious, fascinating, absolutely comprehensible phenomenon — she did what she had done all her life, she split. One of Celia’s daughters she singled out for special favour, the other she virtually ignored.
I don’t know whether I ever loved my sister; my mother, all the while urging family harmony, fueled my resentment and distaste. But certainly I grew concerned, as I watched her melancholy charade: the facade of brightness and the darkening cloud. Committed to happiness, unable to admit disappointment, she found an outlet in anger. Her rages against department-store clerks, false friends, cleaning ladies who failed to turn mattresses, were epic.
For thirty years my sister sang, however unconvincingly, contentment and joy. I am, happy. I am, loved. Reporting “a real tragedy” (someone else’s), she would lay claim to suffering compassion and then suddenly veer off into fashion. Oh, by the way, if you see another pair of earrings like yours, sterling back and crescent-shaped disc drop in muted shades of blue, I’d be interested.” Small anxieties, half confided, would be dismissed with a bizarre non sequitur. “Well, life can be beautiful.” Only when our father, her protector, died, could she reveal her misery. Having now a reason, one unrelated to her carefully defended personal life, she let go at last. She wept hysterically, consulted doctors, took pills, wrote letters still mannered but expressing a genuine, bottomless despair. To our mother, responding to some fancied oversight regarding birthday wishes, she wrote: “I didn’t call because I wanted to spare you my agony: I can’t cope with the loss of my dad. During the day I’m not too bad, I keep going at such a rate I don’t have the strength to cry. But come evening I’m in a terrible state, I just can’t control myself. How can I even begin to describe the love I felt for my Dad? Ever since I recall, as a very young child, I was so proud of my Dad and so fortunate to have my love returned so fully to me.” Love returned, love not returned. Her life revolved on that axis. After my father died, she and my mother quarrelled more harshly and openly. She sank into a depression so engulfing that we hardly noticed when she slid over the edge. One day she tried to walk through the living-room wall; I dismissed that as a momentary abstraction. She had, it seemed, been sitting on the couch for years, declining to cook, refusing to go out. So when a neurologist said, “Alzheimer’s disease,” we were shocked.
My sister’s illness progressed rapidly. A year after diagnosis she was moved to a nursing home. My mother saw her there just once. Visiting Toronto, she maintained at first that she couldn’t meet Celia, wasn’t up to it. I insisted. Together we entered the ward where my sister sat, drugged and stuporous, her hair cropped like a convict’s. I took her hand. She said, querulous, without looking up: “What are all these people doing in my kitchen?” Mother approached — timid, almost frightened, holding out a box of chocolates. “Do you know me?” she asked. My sister’s blurred gaze focused for a moment, her voice came clear, with a feeling that would have blighted buds. “How should I not know you?” After that, there was nothing to say.
When Mother died, a few years later, the nursing home said nothing to my sister. “What for?” an attendant asked. “She’s out of it.” I took Celia for a walk, holding her hand as if she were a child and speaking to her as if we were both children. “Celia, Mama died. She’s dead. We’ll never see her again.” At first she kept her eyes fixed, as usual, on some invisible mote in the middle distance. Then tears squeezed out from under flaked dry lids. She turned to me and wailed, a child’s cry with sixty-odd years of pain behind it. “Why did Mama hate me?”
This, then, is how I came to be so loved. I have heard of cultures in which mothers fashion a doll, a mock baby, to draw off evil spirits and protect the newborn. I think in our family Celia served that function. The accumulated poisons were drained off to her, making possible my mother’s pure and total passion for her youngest child. If mine was the kingdom, the power and the glory, it was achieved at the cost of my sister’s disinheritance.
Fredelle Maynard is a full time writer, lecturer, and radio-TV broadcaster and the author of Raisins and Almonds (Doubleday, 1972), a memoir of her childhood in rural Saskatchewan, made into a television movie in 1974. This article is excerpted from The Tree of Life (Viking, Canada, 1988), © Fredelle Bruser Maynard.