I can’t believe how long it takes me to do anything. Oi, that closet is driving me crazy. “Rifke,” I tell myself, “five billion years they say it took for the earth to get finished. Your impatience is like a wild beast, pulling you in all directions.”
Well, we are a little wild, you know. Vilde chayes, not quite finished, human. Compared to the earth, only a few minutes we’ve been here. We sure made a mess of it fast. Ahh, but fixing, that will take time—like my closet, for example. First it’s all the time you’re opening the closet and saying, “Oi, what a mess.” Then it’s all the time you’re going by the closet and saying, “I gotta clean that closet.” Then, it’s all the time you’re doing other things and feeling guilty about the closet. Finally, it’s the time it actually takes to do it: move things around, throw things away, cry over the old pictures. Time, time, it all takes time.
I used to pick up my children when I got angry and carry them into their room and throw them on their beds like …like a sack of potatoes. I did that.
One time I was coming home from work carrying two, three bags of groceries. You know how it is—up the steps, you think your bones are going to break. And I walked into the house, and there was my little daughter, Shaindeleh. She was maybe eight years old. And she was dancing. She had turned on the radio, and this beautiful voice, Marian Anderson, was singing “Ave Maria.” All of a sudden I see Shayndele fall on the ground on her knees, and she puts her two hands together like she’s praying. In front of my eyes, my little Jewish girl acting like some kind of a shiksahle!
Here I am. I came all the way to America. And what I left behind …I see the pictures of the camps and her cousins who couldn’t get here. And my little girl in a school where they celebrate Christmas. She wants to be like all the other children.
I go crazy.
I grab hold of her. Shaindeleh, Shaindeleh, what are you doing? You don’t do that! Don’t be so foolish. You are a Jewish little girl, you, you are not a goy. And she looks up at me with big eyes. And the more frightened she looks, the more angry I get.
“Mama, mama, I’m dancing.”
“No, no, you’re not,” I say. “No, you don’t do that.” And I start to shake her. And something comes over me. I pick her up, and I carry her to the closet. I open the closet, a closet stuffed full of winter clothes. And I push her into the closet, and I slam the door. I hold it closed, my back strong against the door. And inside, I can hear her whimpering: “Mama, mama.”
Finally, I let her out. And I wipe her face with a washcloth. And I brush her hair.
But I never said I was sorry.
NAOMI: (To the audience) My sister was the hardest one to tell.
NAOMI: (To sister) There’s something I’ve got to talk to you about.
SISTER: What’s the matter, are you sick?
NAOMI: No, I’m fine. There’s been a change …It started about four months ago.
SISTER: You can’t be talking about menopause? Oh no, you’re not going to do another one of your rituals are you?
NAOMI: It’s not menopause. I did my menopause ritual several years ago, and you refused to come.
SISTER: So, what is it?
NAOMI: I’m involved …I’m in a relationship …with a …with a woman. (Long pause) Do you have anything to say?
SISTER: Uh uh.
NAOMI: I don’t get it. You’ve been so worried abut me being alone …I thought you’d be …
SISTER: Glad, overjoyed? You got to be kidding.
NAOMI: It feels right. It feels good. Do you want to know anything about her?
SISTER: Not really.
NAOMI: Would you like it better if I were involved with a boa constrictor, an orangutan—anything but a person with your genitalia?
SISTER: Let’s not get nasty. What do you want from me …just because I’m quiet?
NAOMI: Not quiet. Contracted, like a muscle spasm.
SISTER: Look, do what you want to do. You always have. I still love you. We can still be close. I don’t need to talk about it.
NAOMI: But I do. Please, please, tell me what you think, feel, anything.
SISTER: Well, if you really want to know, I find it very upsetting. I can’t stand it. It makes me sick to my stomach. And to top it off, I’m ashamed of what I’m feeling.
NAOMI: You don’t have to be. It’s your everyday homophobic reaction.
SISTER: I am not homophobic!
NAOMI: Congratulations. I wish I could say the same.
SISTER: You wouldn’t be doing this if mother were alive. I just don’t get it. How can your daughters accept this. There’s got to be some decent men in the Bay Area. You just didn’t try.
NAOMI: Three husbands, three! I think that’s trying pretty hard.
SISTER: Maybe not hard enough. They were all perfectly nice men. The family never understood why you couldn’t get along with any of them.
NAOMI: I couldn’t figure it out either …Each time I was sure it was forever. Each one was so different. The only thing they had in common was that they were Jewish. I started thinking maybe that’s the problem. Then one day the light bulb went on: The problem
wasn’t that the men were Jews, it was that the Jews were men.
SISTER: I think you’re doing this because you’ve run out of ways to be different. God, after all that therapy …
NAOMI: You’re probably right. If I hadn’t practiced being different, strange, queer in other ways. I probably wouldn’t have had the guts at sixty to love a woman. But even with all that practice, it wasn’t easy. Believe me.
SISTER: I should think not.
NAOMI: Do you want to know what was the most difficult?
SISTER: Well then, what was it?
NAOMI: Dealing with the voice in my head that says, “If you were normal, if you were more attractive, if you weren’t old, if there wasn’t something wrong with you, you would be with a man.”
SISTER: If you feel that way, how could you …
NAOMI: I could because I’m old enough to know that even if I can’t control the voices in my head, I don’t have to listen to them. It’s one of the perks of getting old.
I sat by my mother’s bed in the condominium where she spent her widowed years, listening to her mumble over and over, “I’m doing just fine, everything’s coming along
just fine.” I didn’t know if her mantra was meant to comfort me or navigate her own dying.
She wouldn’t talk to me. “Can I read to you?” I asked.
“Can I sing to you?”
She didn’t need me.
Once I was useful. I came into her room and found her on the floor, staring at the bathroom as if the toilet were miles away. She’d slipped off the bed. There was shit on the sheets, shit on the carpet, shit on her white, still shapely legs. I washed her, cleaned up the mess, while she apologized. “A real treat, a real treat I gave you.”
She couldn’t know what a treat it was. Better than the pot roast, the gefilteh fish, the Jello molds, even Bobie’s special cookies. That smelly chocolate thickness from my mother’s belly was her gift to me. Her last lesson of how the body does its journey—and how it could not be stopped by her will, or pride, or dignity, or passion for cleanliness.
“She’s not dying,” my sister said.
“Months,” nodded the doctor.
Inside I knew, but I left her. I flew home to pick up my life, my career, the things I had to do. It was only days before the dreaded call. Before the paramedics blocked her graceful exit, forcing air into her already surrendered lungs. Machines kept them pumping, while my plane flew through the night skies, bringing me back to her.
Why did I leave her?
I didn’t know how to rub her feet, or smooth the sheets over them, or lie down next to her, my fat warming her thin. I didn’t know how to just sit there.
June fourteenth, nineteen eighty-nine, my mother died of heart failure. I live with mine.
I’ve come to tell you a story, a tale of unintentional folly, of human brilliance and human blindness, of men, good men, who unleashed a force they didn’t fully understand. How do I know? I was the wife of one of those men.
Dec. 1938. I’m not so good with dates, but I remember that one because my first son had just turned one year old. My husband came home late from the laboratory—silent, pale, looking older than I’d ever seen. It was a very cold night in New York. He took off his hat, coat, scarf, staring at the wall, and then blurted out, “Can you imagine, my dear, Otto has split the atom!” Otto was a chemist friend we had left behind in Germany a few years before. After the Nazis came to power, Jewish scientists were …oh, well, you know all about that! My husband looked at me as if I should say something that would change what we both understood. “The implications, my dear,” he said, “The implications. The world is headed for grief!”
We moved to Los Alamos, New Mexico, in the summer of 1943. My son was five-and-a-half years old. The United Stated government had gathered the most brilliant physicists from around the world to work hurriedly and secretly on a project to help end the war. That was all the wives were told. We were sworn to secrecy without even knowing what it was we were not allowed to talk about.
The men worked so hard, sometimes through the night. They seemed to be driven by demons. But at the same time they were excited, exhilarated. There was a kind of mania in the air. Once at a New Year’s Eve party—we were all a little tipsy—a few of the men were hovering in the corner when one of them shouted out in an angry voice: “As a scientist it is my responsibility to make things work that will work. How they’re used is not my responsibility.”
I tried to put the pieces together. But it was useless. I stopped asking my husband questions. He would become so agitated, rubbing his hands together like Lady Macbeth. Yet it was very, very clear that he would not break whatever oath they had sworn him to. The husbands and wives orbited around each other in two separate circles, the men trying to save the world and the women trying to save some semblance of normal life.
I wonder what might have happened if the wives had been told what their husbands were working on. Could we have stopped them? Would we even have tried? Maybe yes, maybe no. We were very young, in our twenties and early thirties. But isn’t it curious that the generals in charge feared that the project would not succeed if the wives had knowledge of it?
The rest of the sad tale you know. You know how in August, 1945, Hiroshima and Nagasaki became boiling cauldrons of hell on earth. I still have the letter my husband wrote to me. It said, “Using atomic bombs against Japan is one of the greatest blunders of history. Dropping the bomb on Hiroshima was a tragic mistake, and dropping it on Nagasaki was an atrocity. I tried to prevent it without success. It is very difficult to see what wise course of action is possible from here on.”
When we first came to Los Alamos, our husbands had explained that the work must proceed so quickly because they were in a race to accomplish this “Project X” before the Nazis could. But when Germany surrendered, revealing they had no atomic bomb, the project continued full force. Only two scientists out of hundreds resigned, only two. My husband was not one of them.
My husband is dead now for many years. He does not know that his adopted country spends over 6.5 billion dollars a year to make bigger and more deadly atomic weapons. He does not have to face that there are hundreds of nuclear reactors around the world producing tons and tons of poisoned waste no one knows how to handle. He doesn’t have to be haunted by the never-ending parade of people killed or maimed by exposure to nuclear energy or worry about its effect on future generations.
I, on the other hand, know. I do not want to. I try to forget, to distract myself. But then I remember how the citizens of the Third Reich made themselves “not know.” How they kept silent. I cannot deny. You see, I have three grandchildren.