Wishing for “Father Knows Best”

I had always dreamed of being a Christian. Christians, I decided at an early age, were much happier than Jews. I could prove it too: the evidence was everywhere. The Christians in my neighborhood were Italian and Catholic. There were lots of children in those families, at least four, and sometimes as many as seven. They lived in narrow limestone houses that seemed slightly too small for them: two or three sisters would have to share a room. I could imagine how they would stay up late, after they were supposed to be asleep, talking and giggling, reading comic books by flashlight under the covers.

Those houses had small lawns out front, with neat beds of flowers and holy icons placed in the grass: the Blessed Virgin with her arms outstretched, the infant Jesus holding a lamb. My family lived in a big apartment with lots of rooms — I had one of my own and so did my brother. My parents had their bedroom far down the hall, away from us, and my father had a study — for writing, he said. But I didn’t see him write all that much; mostly, he sat on a second-hand couch that was near the window. When the couch was delivered, he said that it would be perfect for overnight guests. I liked that idea — overnight guests — but in fact, the only person who ever slept on that couch was my father, when he was tired in the afternoons, or sometimes at night too, if he and my mother had had a quarrel.

Those families filled their houses with vinyl covered E-Z chairs, color televisions, shag carpeting. My parents thought things like that were decadent and bourgeois. Our apartment had bare wooden floors that usually were too cold to sit on, lots of faded and dog-eared books everywhere, and odd, blotchy pictures on the walls that my parents called “abstract.”

Those families had cars, and on weekends, went visiting to big, noisy cousins in Bensonhurst, in-laws in Canarsie. The kids would go into the backyard for a game of tag. Later, they would have a barbecue. My parents didn’t seem to care for their families, and we never visited relatives, all of whom lived in the Midwest, anyway. And my father didn’t own an automobile. “America is a country that worships the idol of the car,” he told me, “and we won’t bow.” He always sounded quite grand when he said things like that, and his small, light eyes got a dreamy, faraway look. I squeezed his hand, though I wasn’t sure exactly what he meant.

Another thing about Catholic families was their animals. Fat, soft bunnies in a backyard hutch, German shepherds that both excited and frightened me. I envied their toy poodles with painted toe nails, litters of kittens, bright raucous parakeets, shimmering fish. My father didn’t believe in domesticated animals: Why did I want to thwart their natural instincts? he asked. But he finally gave in and let me buy a hamster at Woolworth’s. It slept all day and left its food untouched until it was my bedtime, when I would hear it munching steadily in the dark. It spent the rest of the night running around and around on the stationary wheel in its cage, the soft squeak, squeak, lulling me to sleep. After two weeks, I found it dead, head caught between the spokes of the wheel, tiny neck snapped. “Suicide” was my brother’s comment. Although my father offered to buy me another hamster, I declined.

But the family that was dearest to me was the Andersons, from “Father Knows Best.” I loved all the characters: Dad, with his cardigan and pipe, Mom, whose arms were ever-outstretched under a tray of fresh brownies. My mother hated to cook and never baked, not even from a mix. The meals she made were awful — burned or raw or mutilated: fish stew that curdled and appeared at the table with thick globs floating on it; gray pot roasts no one could chew; vegetables that had turned to mush. If we complained, she would cry, so we rarely did, and meals were generally eaten in an uneasy silence. The Andersons enjoyed wonderful meals together, at which everyone made wisecracks and laughed, and Mom reminded them gently to mind their manners.

Kitten, the youngest daughter, was in school plays, won spelling bees, belonged to the Girl Scouts. I didn’t like school all that much, but I was dying to be a Girl Scout. I loved the hunter green uniform, plastic belt, green socks. But my father objected. The Girl Scouts were a paramilitary organization, he told me, and he was a pacifist. Didn’t I want to be a pacifist like Daddy? he coaxed, stroking my hair. I wanted to please him, so I nodded, but I longed for those socks with the gold insignia at the ankle.

Bud, an adolescent of indeterminate age, was the brother. He was always getting into scrapes. I liked it when Dad and Bud patched things up — it always made me cry. My own brother was seven years my senior and scarcely noticed me. He collected things, but not model trains or baseball cards like Bud. Instead, he cherished a collection of bullets that spanned three centuries, a black widow spider encased in a glass ashtray, a miniature ivory skull, and a glass eye that was shot through with tiny red veins, thin as hairs. He owned literally thousands of ball bearings, in various sizes and materials, which he bought from an industrial supplier. His favorite was a large, stainless steel sphere that must have weighed ten pounds. He was very proud of it, and often took it into the bathroom, where he could polish it, slowly and lovingly, until it gleamed like a planet from a strange and distant galaxy. Once, while performing this ritual, it slipped and fell from his hands. We all heard the terrible noise and raced to the bathroom. We found my brother sloshing around in a pool of water; the ball bearing was nestled between the two shining white halves of the toilet bowl, which had been severed down the middle neatly as a melon.

The Andersons understood comfort and had plenty of pillows on their beds, pressed bathrobes, and in their bathrooms, there were always clean towels. In our apartment, you could never find: an ice cream scoop, a sponge, glue, stamps, a roll of scotch tape, a pad of paper, a pencil sharpener, or a band-aid.

Mr. Anderson didn’t slip into deep, blue funks during which he sat on the couch, stroking its frayed arm and saying nothing for hours at a time, even when you tried to cheer him up; Mrs. Anderson didn’t cry or break the dishes when she wanted attention. In fact, the Andersons had very pretty dishes, from the Sears catalog, and they all matched. My mother collected dishes from thrift shops and junk stores and no two were ever the same. She was proud of them, the Blue Onion and Blue Willow, the Depression and Carnival glass, sponge and spatterware and the vivid, bright stuff she called Fiesta. Her dishes were a kind of passion and they overflowed the cabinets as well as dressers and sills. One afternoon, when my father was sitting in his study reading, my mother appeared in the doorway, holding the broken pieces of a cobalt-blue glass pitcher she had especially liked.

“Did you break this?” she asked. He said nothing and continued to read. “I know you did,” she added, “and it was probably on purpose, too.” He turned a page in his book, carefully moistening his forefinger with his tongue. “You’ve always hated my dishes,” she said, her voice rising. My father didn’t look up, but one hand started rubbing the arm of the sofa as he spoke.

“I think you’re getting a little paranoid, don’t you? I didn’t break your pitcher. Considering how much junk you’ve got around here,” he made a gesture with his arm that seemed to encompass not only the room, but the whole apartment, “I’m surprised more things aren’t broken. Why don’t you try cleaning up once in a while?”

“You really hate them, don’t you?” she said, and she was shouting now. “Hate them, hate!” She raised her arm and hurled one of the larger pieces she was holding against the wall. It made a terrible noise as it hit, and broke immediately into a thousand bright bits. My father got up and quietly closed the door. I could hear him sweeping the pieces of broken glass into a pile with a newspaper or something, whoosh, whoosh on the wooden floor.

But sometimes, the dark clouds which seemed to hover over him would lift, and then he was the most wonderful, the most charming father in the world, even better than Mr. Anderson because he was real, and was my father, and Mr. Anderson was, after all, only make-believe. Those times, he hosted an imaginary radio program, for which I was both actress and audience. My stage name was Little Mary Sunshine, and I spoke into my hairbrush, which served as a microphone and I tried not to laugh — it would interrupt the programming — when he ad-libbed commercials for dolls that not only wet and cried but threw up their dinners, and a magical, multi-colored soap that you eat when you had finished washing with it.

The year that I was eleven, I stayed at home in the city instead of attending the progressive Jewish camp in the Catskills where I had gone for the past three summers. My brother had recently gone off to college and didn’t come home that summer, so my mother and I were alone. I knew that in Christian families, everyone went away together: camping by a lake or swimming at the shore. They breathed in the salt air, grew tan, toasted marshmallows, sang songs in the car. My mother had for years vacationed alone. Usually, she went to visit friends while my brother stayed at home with my father, who said he liked “New York’s August hush,” and I went to Ellenville, where I learned Israeli folk dances and was tormented by mosquitoes in the summer dusk. But that year, with my brother gone, my father went away by himself.

It was strange being home with everything so hot and silent. None of my friends were around and I spent a lot of time alone in my room, watching television and reading. I missed my father, but I didn’t say that to my mother. She seemed preoccupied; she had stopped cooking altogether, and let me eat anything I wanted, which mostly turned out to be ice cream and cupcakes. Then, all at once she was packing, yanking the suitcases down from the closet, tossing our clothes in without even folding them.

She wanted to visit a friend, she told me; this time, I would come along. We sat in the air-conditioned Greyhound bus and I looked out the window, watching the way the white lines in the middle of the road seemed to curve and rush beneath the wheels. Soon, this made me feel sick so I concentrated instead on eating the lunch my mother had packed: sandwiches of peanut butter and jelly whose contents leaked through the soggy bread, hard boiled eggs with little bits of shell still clinging to the sides and stale cookies.

I liked the town where my mother’s friend lived. It had small, one-story houses, surrounded by neat yards dotted with pieces of wicker lawn furniture. There were flower boxes on the window sills filled with pansies and petunias, and white trellises around which curved twisting stalks of beautiful red tomatoes. I liked my mother’s friend too, a large blonde woman who loved to cook, even in the summer, and who served wonderful, odd tasting things to eat. Her husband was from Syria; for him she had learned to prepare meats fragrant with cinnamon, chickpeas ground with olive oil and lemon. She gave us wrinkled dark olives, a salty cheese that I loved, and a flat delicious bread that she heated in the oven before we ate it.

There were four children in this family, three sisters and a brother. And they were Jewish! I couldn’t quite believe it, so I asked my mother again. The first night we were there, we all ate together, seated at their large dining room table. It was set with blue and white woven mats and in the center were some pink flowers in a vase that one of the sisters had picked from the garden. Everyone talked a lot; the children teased their father and shared food easily from each other’s plates.

After dinner, the father showed me the backyard. It was paved with bricks and bordered by low bushes that were studded with tiny, white flowers. He had planted everything himself. He explained to me how he had always loved trees and flowering shrubs, and how he had slowly constructed this oasis for his family. His arm gestured proudly over the dove cote, the ivy that covered the walls of the house. My father didn’t like making things; he had to call the super to fix the faucets or bring the toaster to a repair shop. But he was wonderfully adept in his own way: the radio shows, the long stories that he composed, wrote down and then illustrated with magic markers. I had them all tacked to the walls in my room.

The blonde mother was in the kitchen with my mother. Over the crooning of the doves, I could hear them laughing as they prepared something for the next night’s meal. I had never seen doves before, and I marvelled at their soft, plump bodies, their pink feet and eyes.

“Would you like to hold one?’ said this unfamiliar, competent father. “They’re very tame” I picked one up carefully and began to stroke its warm front. “She likes you,” he said. “You see how quiet she is?” I petted the bird while he told me more about doves: when they mated, it was for life. I thought of my father then, and wondered where he was. What if he were with another family, one serene and whole, as ours never was? Or what if he were sitting alone in a strange room, staring out the window and stroking the arm of some other sofa in that wistful way that he had? I realized, quite suddenly, but with no surprise, that he wasn’t coming home again.

Still clutching the dove, I went into the house through the kitchen door, to where my mother and her friend were standing at the counter, engrossed in their conversation. They hadn’t heard me come in, so they didn’t turn around. I could see that my mother had been coating cubes of meat with oil, and her hands and forearms were covered with it. When I went over to where she stood, she finally turned to face me. “He’s not coming back,” I said. She didn’t pretend not to understand, and her glistening hands fell to her sides. I repeated what I had said, and then quite softly, she began to cry.

Yona Zeldis McDonough was born in Israel and grew up in New York City where she now lives. She recently completed a novel based on the life of Mary Magdalene.