Actually, her plan wasn't totally ridiculous. Montreal's Museum of Fine Arts offered a one-year certificate program in art education, and with the long tail of the boomer generation filling elementary schools as quickly as they could be built, teaching jobs were still plentiful.
That's when Nola came to live with us. In 1962, Canada had fewer than ten million people. Montreal, Toronto, Winnipeg, Edmonton, and Vancouver were the five large beads in a vast but sparsely populated chain stretching 3,000 miles from east to west. People from small rural towns came to the cities for jobs, for a once-a-decade vacation, or to hide and ride out their illegitimate pregnancies.
Nola had lived on a farm about fifty miles from Calgary, Alberta. I can't fathom why she came roughly 2,000 miles from there to Montreal. But like Lynn, who would come after her, she had somehow found the Catholic agency that would place unmarried, pregnant women with local families for the duration of their terms, scoop up their babies for adoption, and ship the women back on the train to wherever they'd come from.
Of course I understood none of this in that year, when I was eight. Nola did not yet have a belly, and as far as I knew, she was living with us to occasionally cook dinner, do the laundry, and mostly, to babysit for my brother and me while our mother was in school. She had beige glasses and dirty blond hair that started each day in a hopeful pageboy, greeted the afternoon with the limpest of waves, and ended it yanked and bound in bristly curlers. She wasn't fun, but she wasn't mean. Unlike her non-live-in predecessor, Mrs. Alter, she didn't have thick ankles that ballooned out of the tops of black-laced boots or drink tea out of a glass. Mrs. Alter's clenched red face and hands had a glistening veneer of sweat. Nola had soothing, cool hands and pale, almost transparent skin. She didn't frighten me.
I liked to go into Nola's small basement room, which was narrow and smelled so new. Usually she would be sitting on her pillow at the head of the bed, her back against the wall, leafing through an issue of Chatelaine, but sometimes she would just be gazing at the square of light that snuck in the basement window on the opposite wall. These visits were short, as I never knew what to say to her, and if my bed was already made and my face was free of peanut butter, she had little to say to me. But on Wednesday, Friday, and Saturday nights, her boyfriend—the cabdriver she met as he drove her from the train station to our house when she first arrived—would come pick her up, and Nola would emerge from her cubby of a room, hair gleaming, eyes bright behind her glasses, smiling lips garish against her pellucid face.
I don't remember the arrivals of our unwed mothers, only their departures. Lynn waddled out of our house about five months after she'd come, escorted to a black Rambler by my mother, who carried her two suitcases, and a lady I'd never seen before holding her elbow. They looked strangely festive to me, as if they were hustling Lynn to a party at which she was the cake.
Nola left within a couple of months of her arrival. I have one vivid memory, though, from the week before her boyfriend drove her back to the Canadian National Railway station from which she'd come. The memory is this: While my parents confer quietly outside her door, I peek in and see Nola lying in her narrow bed under a pile of blankets, her face white and clammy. Nola is sick, my parents tell me. Don't disturb her.
Of course, Nola wasn't sick. The prior night, she and her boyfriend had gone to the town of Ste. Agathe des Monts, about sixty miles north of Montreal. With an off-season population of about 8,000 people that practically doubled in the summer, Ste. Agathe was one of the largest towns in the Laurentian Mountains. It had three movie theatres—the year-round French one and the two English-language ones only open in July and August. It had a tuberculosis sanitarium and a Catholic hospital that served all the small towns within a forty-mile radius. Spas, summer cottages, ski hills, and a year-round paper mill created a steady stream of laborers and service workers, transient young men, and young women likely to get in trouble. They were served by a handful of backroom specialists who took only cash.
I don't know how much Nola paid to have her uterus scraped in someone's second-floor kitchen in Ste. Agathe. I only know what my mother told me just recently, when I finally thought to ask about this scene that I've remembered all these years—that very late on Saturday night, Nola's boyfriend phoned my parents' house in a panic. She'd had an abortion, he told them, and started to hemorrhage almost immediately. He'd taken her to the hospital in Ste. Agathe, but the nuns refused to admit her. She was now lying in the back of his cab, bleeding out onto the seat as he stood in the phone booth at the Texaco station just off the autoroute. He didn't know how he'd clean it, how he'd get the blood out of the upholstery. He was afraid Nola would die, and he didn't know what to do with her. Could he bring her home, by which he meant, back to our house?
Of course, my mother answered. Then she called her gynecologist to see if he would admit Nola to the Jewish General Hospital in Montreal. No, he told her. He couldn't take the risk of being associated with an abortion, even one he didn't perform. Instead, he wrote my mother a prescription for an antibiotic and instructed her on how often to give it to Nola. He told her to apply ice packs to Nola's belly.
The tableau imprinted on my mind's eye—Nola waxy and scared, my parents secretive and grave, my father leaning in close to my mother as he stood with one foot resting on the leather seat of our toy chest—must have been from the next morning, after they'd stayed up with her all night. I knew nothing of that. I just knew that my father's foot barred entrance to my holster, my tutu, to the wood-burning set with which I painstakingly etched out pictures of trees and clouds and children, the sweet smoke rising from the wood, the outlines emerging from its smooth, flat surface.
Until 1967, it was illegal in Canada to publish or otherwise transmit birth control information. Any discussion of contraception on the airwaves had to be cleared in advance by the Board of Broadcast Governors, and it was illegal for drugstores to sell condoms (though they carried them under the counter). Indeed, the words "condom" and "penis" never appeared in the press. Any married couple engaging in fellatio could be jailed for practicing "gross indecency," and while that couldn't be enforced, the law barring homosexuality could be and vigorously was.
"We were all having premarital sex," my mother tells me now, "or at least most of us, and we could all get diaphragms from our doctors. But nobody talked about it. It wasn't something we'd admit to even our closest friends. Ruth was pregnant when she married Lou, but we all just nodded and clucked with concern when she told us that Stacy was born prematurely."
Though ninety percent of the earned income in Canada went to men, the government did award a monthly stipend to all wives with children. And just as well, because, as Canadian journalist Pierre Burton notes, married women "could rarely open a bank account, apply for a credit card or even a library card without their husband's signature." Abortion was, of course, illegal, and a divorce was almost as difficult to obtain. "In British Columbia [a woman] could have obtained a divorce if she'd been the victim of rape, sodomy, or bestiality. In New Brunswick, frigidity and impotence were grounds; in Nova Scotia, consanguinity (blood relationship), impotence, or cruelty. In Quebec and Newfoundland there were no divorce courts; she would have had to petition Parliament through a private member's bill. In the rest of the country she would have to prove adultery." To get divorced, many couples agreed that one of them would falsely admit to adultery, hiring professional co-respondents to serve as their "lovers" in court. My mother knew of such cases, but the bizarreness of the situation—the pretend Protestant restraint of marital sex, the winking lies of divorce—only strikes her now, looking back from a different normal.
At the point that we left Montreal in 1964, I knew two divorcées. My mother's cousin Eleanor had won a divorce after her pharmacist husband decided when she was in labor that he really didn't want a child, after all, and moved out as she was giving birth. ("He brought shame to the Labow name," I overheard from more than one neighbor and relative.) Then the mother of my friend Jane, who lived right around the corner from us, got divorced. Nobody knew why; her mother never invested her pruriently interested neighbors with the secret. If Jane had wanted to talk about her parents' split, I doubt she could have. I was one of her best friends, and though I was curious, I was not alone in believing that discussing her parents' divorce would cause her unbearable shame. I was still allowed to play at her house, but it was a quiet and darkly sour place, as if the divorce had left a stain that time could never lift. Mrs. Kaleb moved through it like a ghost, nearly invisible.
For my first few years of elementary school, it seemed that our mother was always tethered to the phone when my brother arrived home in the afternoon. Sometimes she'd be on the kitchen telephone, more often sitting on the couch in our finished basement, an occasional Salem cigarette burning in the ashtray next to her, talking to her childhood friend Babs.
I thought Babs was a really odd name, but fitting for Mrs. Abrams, whose voice, both breathy and loud, accessorized her large frame and brassy personality. She was bossy—not quite my mother's type—but not perfectly manicured and coiffed and tight-mouthed and angry like so many of our neighbors—also not quite my mother's type. Still, I couldn't understand what they could possibly have to say to each other day after day.
When my mother went to art school, the daily conversations with Babs stopped. While she spent her days at the museum, the other mothers kept chatting on their newly upgraded wall-telephones in pink and green and beige. While they paced their kitchens, the long, curly cords of their new phones draped behind them like wedding dress trains, my mother was downtown mixing paints and breathing in turpentine and modern art.
Years later, I would find myself sitting on a couch, talking on the phone. Every weeknight after dinner, I'd get a call from Rosie, my daughter's babysitter, telling me what Katie had done that day. I resented those calls, which encroached on my scant and precious after-work time with my daughter. But Rosie was simply starved for conversation, and as I sat squeezing and releasing the spit-curled phone cord, I pictured the smoke from Rosie's Newport curling upward from the beanbag ashtray next to her, and recognized her trapped and frantic tone. Her days in her small, dim row home were structured by children—her own and those she babysat—and at night, if only for a few minutes, she wanted to abandon the cooing and coaxing and calming that consumed her days and simply hear her own, adult voice.
My mother had a wildness about her, and an eagerness too, that made her different from the other mothers. Her salads were big and bright, the peppers and carrots chopped large enough to ensure that their green and orange stood out against the pastel iceberg lettuce and their crunch was audible. She put pineapple in the tuna, copious garlic in the soup, made peanut butter and banana sandwiches instead of peanut butter and jam. She listened to Miles Davis records when the other mothers were enduring Perry Como, and when Rodolfo and the dying Mimi sang their last duet in La Bohème, she'd sit my brother and me in front of the record player with her so the three of us could weep together. When we got into the car, we could never drive directly to our destination; she would insist that we try out a new route, or stop for a small gift to bring to whomever we were visiting, or take advantage of the Open House that we were passing to see the interiors of homes we would never be in a position to buy. When she played piano, her fingers were not delicate on the keys, and lying under it, I could feel the floor tremble.
In other ways, my mother was just like the other mothers. She would never leave the house without first applying lipstick, and her purse swelled with folds of Kleenex adorned with red, fuzzy, crescent-shaped kisses. She cooked Swedish meatballs in a sauce made from ketchup and grape jelly, stabbed them with toothpicks, and served them to visiting dinner guests from a chafing dish that sat in the middle of the dining room table atop a glowering flame. She dutifully lit Shabbat candles every Friday night, though the ritual meant little to her, and went to meetings of Jewish philanthropies, where they planned fundraising parties to support good deeds. The fact that we'd had some of our own furniture repossessed and could have used some philanthropy ourselves was not discussed there.
Indeed, it seemed to me that my mother invested tremendous energy in keeping up appearances. For every uncomplicated hug that she gave, she also tortured me with her clenched-teeth attempts to pass a hairbrush through my curly hair, with her insistence that I be corseted into a stiff, abrasive crinoline beneath my party dress, or wear shiny patent leather shoes instead of my beloved red canvas sneakers. To look presentable was to be subject to scratchy clothes and tugged hair, to be victimized by what I felt to be small, daily acts of violence.
"Were you just trying to conform when you did that?" I asked her recently as we discussed life before the women's liberation movement.
"I wasn't trying to conform," she answers, startled, in fact, wounded. "I was just proud of you." Then, after a pause, "I suppose I would have been embarrassed if you'd looked awful." She is eighty-four, and one of her front teeth has broken off. Embarrassed sounds like embarrathed. "I think every mother feels that way. Didn't you feel that way?" She's right, of course, and suddenly I am deeply ashamed.
In those years that my mother was in art school, our finished basement got messier. Now, besides the toy chests, the brand-new television built into the wall, the stacks of records, the plastic-covered card table to be used for all—and that meant all—chemistry projects, the plastic bowling pins, the cases and cases of unsold Glee detergent, the two industrial freezers stuffed with cartons of Sara Lee cheesecake and Chef Lee Chow Mein, we had oversized art books on every surface.
My favorite was The Private World of Pablo Picasso, with text and photographs by photojournalist David Douglas Duncan. In the photos I studied most often, Picasso painted, chatted with a visiting friend, read a newspaper—all while wearing a white boatneck shirt, horizontally striped clown pants, knee-high argyle socks, and white loafers. These pictures left me dumbstruck. I'd simply never seen a grown-up dressed like that, not even in a movie. While my mother pored over his paintings in the companion book that sat on the end table next to the couch, I studied the pictures of life at La Californie, Picasso's French villa.
A gleaming sculpture of a small-breasted, wide-hipped woman sat on a shelf, her long neck widening at the top to serve as the opening for a vase. Below her, on crates and palettes and squatting on the floor were other women, some with off-kilter heads or enormous rounded breasts. The breasts were always smooth and gleaming in contrast to the rough stone or plaster of their torsos and arms. In one room of the house, a live goat sat tethered to a doorknob, a box of straw on the floor behind its stubby tail. In another photograph, the goat stood in a garden, leashless and erect, facing off against a sculpted bronze dog.
And throughout, there was Picasso—in the bathtub, ebullient, scrubbing his back with a loufah, playing a xylophone made of coconut shells and strips of wood, or twirling on his bedroom balcony, hands overhead and gravely clapping, fingers snapping, wearing his wife's petticoat and an ancient African war helmet that looked like a birthday party hat, dancing a flamenco.
One sequence of photos began with a picture of him sitting at a table at the end of a meal, sucking on the remains of a fish. In the first frame, he placed the perfectly intact spine, feathered by delicate ribs, on wet plaster, and painted a hand-thrown plate on a stool in the next. Then, in the final frame, he tenderly laid two plaster casts of the skeleton of the fish that he had just thoroughly, voraciously consumed onto the dish he had just painted.
Though his images were not realistic, there was nothing ethereal about his art. It was as corporeal as a tongue lapping up bits of moist flesh from the carcass of a fish, as shocking as a gash of wet paint on a dry plate. And though his villa was enormous, it was cluttered with canvases, sculptures, animals, children, costumes, and visible noise.
It wasn't just the impropriety of the place that enthralled me. It was the bedlam. For me, Picasso and his peers were grown-ups acting like children. They suggested the nearly unthinkable notion that adults could simply play.
But for my mother, this art signified the possibility of no rules, of making your own rules. "It was only when I stood in front of his canvases that Picasso moved me," she tells me. "But for years before that, I was intellectually thrilled by him. What he was doing—what he showed me you could do—was deconstruct something instantly recognized, something familiar, and then reassemble the pieces to make something entirely new."
In the fall of 1964, my parents rented out their house in Montreal (wrongly believing that one day they would return) and moved us to Ann Arbor, Michigan, where my mother would get a master's in social work and my father, miraculously, a PhD in psychology. I say "miraculously" because he had no idea what he was in for and nobody to emulate or learn from. For our first two years there, my mother worked in a day care center while my father helped to support us with a morning paper route, went to classes, and cooked meals for the family. My brother and I shared a room; my father's "study" was a desk crammed into the walk-in closet in my parents' bedroom. Broke, broken away, and far from home, both of my parents described those years as the happiest of their lives.
When we moved, my mother took all of the art books from our basement with her. The cover of the Alexander Calder book she'd often study featured a picture of a mobile that hung in Montreal's Museum of Fine Art. Like spidery branches, a web of slender metal rods sprouted small sheet-metal shapes painted red. Though similar, each leaf was a little different from the other—some shaped almost like fans, some almost like teardrops, some almost like triangles or crescents or spheres. Their resistance to easy classification is what drew you in, that and the way they seemed to quietly float, Calder making metal look as organic as any leaf or delicate vine.
"See the air in it?" my mother would say before we moved, still struggling for a vocabulary she had not yet acquired. "It has such freedom."
"And just as well": Pierre Burton, 1967: The Last Good Year. (Toronto: Doubleday Canada, 1999) p. 114
"In British Columbia": Ibid., p. 120
David Douglas Duncan, The Private World of Pablo Picasso. (New York: The Ridge Press: 1958)
"One sequence of photos": Ibid., p. 38-39
Title image, "Amour Bleu," by Glorianne Wittes, provided courtesy of Julie Wittes Schlack.