The Firstborn and the Princess

1953. America is in a boom economy — people buying everything, discovering shopping as a hobby. My mother, my two brothers and I move into public housing. There is no car, the closets have no doors, we buy our clothes at John’s Bargain Basement. My mother works two jobs: by day she’s a comptometer operator, typing numbers on a mechanical calculator; once a week she cooks hot dogs for Bingo Night at a synagogue. My grandmother lives with us, to take care of us, but in many ways my brothers and I raised ourselves. The smart, Jewish wild children of the projects.

It is all comparative. Sometimes we are the studious geeks of the neighborhood (since most of the kids around us have little encouragement to study), but my brothers are also effortlessly daring. With their chemistry sets, they build a volcano in the toilet bowl which “erupts” with greater force than they expect and cracks the bowl. They build a stink bomb that burns the median on the road, bringing out fire engines. They will become highly accomplished scientists. Being “the girl” in the family, my risks are more social. I sneak out at night to hang out on street corners, and my brother Joey covers for me. I date non-Jews in black leather jackets and make sure they pick me up from Hebrew school so the rabbi will tell my parents. The three of us watch one another do things we shouldn’t, sharing the conviction that taking risks is good.

We spend weekends with my father — dipping into his life is like dunking into icy water at the beach: exhilarating, daunting, intense. I idolize his eccentricities, which are really psychosis. Mark tries to protect our father from himself. Joey wants to get on with things, not have this always be so central. I am fascinated when my father fixes lunch for us in his backyard by placing sliced potatoes on a rock and aiming a magnifying glass at them; Mark wants to be sure my father doesn’t burn himself; Joey wants a real lunch.

My father in his madness becomes religious, and one of his fiercest obsessions is with the biblical patriarchs and the role of the firstborn son. There are two sons, but it is the firstborn son who counts. My father says “Mark, the firstborn son” as though the epithet were Mark’s middle name. The firstborn son gets first choice in everything, gets to decide for the other two. When I propose that we all do something on a day we are visiting, my father replies, “Let Mark decide, since he is the firstborn son.” It infuriates me every time.

2004. It is my mother’s 90th birthday. I make a speech about the sacrifices she made raising three brilliant children with their many advanced degrees, about how many hours she worked, never letting us feel we were a burden or truly poor; how if we asked for something, she would find a way, never saying no. Mark stands up after me and says, “She never said no to some of us,” meaning me. I am stunned: Did they not get everything they asked for? When I wanted a dress from Lord and Taylor’s for eighth-grade graduation, she bought it; in high school I got the camel jacket with a fox collar; the summer I was 15, some of my friends joined a swim club in the suburbs, and yes, she even found the money for that. The luxuries she never had. But my brothers? Did they care that all their clothes came from John’s Bargain Basement, that they didn’t go to swim clubs? Did they ask for things and not get them, or just not ask? And, really, how could I not have noticed?

Mark and I battled our way through childhood. He once threw a knife at me (it missed). We didn’t speak the entire year before he went to college. And then we became friends. He brought books home for me to read, taught me how to change the oil in a car. It took decades for me to see what had been going on: the Firstborn and the Princess, battling for advantage, while Joey watched it all, loved by all, rarely making waves. It’s a family. Not Ozzie and Harriet, but a normal family, like all things become normal when you live them. And there was something else, an intense empathy driven by the desire to protect both parents, to spare them, burdened as they already were, from seeing the raggedness of our growing up.

You don’t plan on raising kids this way, but now, more than 40 years after leaving our mother’s home, we three have links that I’m convinced are more powerful than most siblings’ — links created by poverty, love, competition, eccentricity, deprivation and madness. It’s not ideal. But it’s pretty good.

Gloria Jacobs is the executive director of the Feminist Press at CUNY and the former executive editor of Ms. magazine. She is the coauthor with Barbara Ehrenreich and Elizabeth Hess of Re-Making Love: The Feminization of Sex.