First grade in America. Miss Gordon greeted us outside the classroom door at P.S. 25 that September morning in 1953. She touched my shoulder as she lined us up in size places, and I gazed up at her, a beautiful woman with white hair. But not like an old lady’s. Hers was sparkly, as if she’d sprinkled it with a fistful of snow glitter.
“Can you believe the teacher’s hair?” I whispered to Sandra Klein as we made our way inside.
“Don’t you know anything, Naomi?” she said. “That’s a special color called platinum.”
Still in size places, we shuffled into the room to find our seats. I wound up in the second row, directly behind fidgety Mark Kagan, who wouldn’t stop rocking back and forth. I sat back and folded my hands on the scratched desk . The wooden top had a pungent smell, like the storage chest at home that held our important papers from Germany.
Miss Gordon pointed to a stack of books on the back table. “I’m going to hand out your readers now. They’re brand new, so be sure to take good care of them. Stay seated until I call your name.”
I squirmed in my chair, already halfway out of it by the time she got to me. With both arms extended, I accepted the first English language book I’d ever held. Taking delicate steps, as if I were cradling a porcelain baby doll, I tiptoed back to my desk. I set the book down carefully and opened the cover to an illustration of a light-haired, blue-eyed family with three children, Dick, Jane, and little Sally. They looked nothing like any family in my Brooklyn neighborhood. More like the ones that smiled down on us from the sun-dazzled billboards we passed on trips up to the Catskill Mountains.
After school, my mother led me across Myrtle Avenue under the elevated subway to Willy’s Stationery Store to buy the school supplies Miss Gordon said we needed. From the jumbled aisles, I selected a black-and-white composition notebook, a set of number two pencils, a Mr. Potato Head pencil case, and a brick-shaped gummy eraser, its mossy scent so heady I sneaked whiffs of it all the way home.
Before long, I’d learned enough words to sit at the kitchen table after school and practice my reading. When I had the urge to read aloud, I dragged my chair over to my sister’s playpen in the corner of the kitchen and projected my voice through the mesh netting while she flailed her arms in response. My mother paid us little attention as she overcooked meat and vegetables for dinner. Wielding her utensils, she sliced, trimmed, stirred, baked and fried, proud after her years of hunger in the camps to serve such feasts to her family.
In those days my mother was an expert at everything. She could effortlessly navigate a foldable shopping cart alongside my sister’s bulky baby carriage through the crowded Brooklyn streets while I grasped her elbow and tried to keep up. She could set her hair in meticulous rows on spongy pink rollers so it came out bouncy and smooth. She could braid dough for challah that emerged from the oven with a buttery gloss. And she could help me with my schoolwork.
On a snowy December afternoon, Miss Gordon had us take turns reading aloud from the final chapter of our books. Afterwards, we piled our dog-eared copies on the back table before she handed out the next book in the series, Our New Friends. “Read chapter one for homework,” she said. This was not a monumental task for a first grader. Each chapter contained a few lines of text with only a handful of new words. Phrases were constantly repeated.
Back home, after kicking off my rubber boots on the doormat outside our apartment, I plunked my schoolbag onto the kitchen table and settled into a chair. My mother set a cup of hot cocoa and plate of sugar cookies before me. Itching to start the new book, I took a quick sip of the cocoa, but pushed the cookies away, afraid I’d get crumbs on the pages.
“What’s this word?” I asked.
My mother wiped her hands on her apron and cast a shadow onto the page as she read over my shoulder. My eyes and throat stung from the sharp smell she gave off, a mixture of potato peelings, raw chicken and onions.
“Kuh-no,” she said, then returned to her place beside the sink.
I nodded and reread the sentence, still puzzled by the new word. But I knew better than to keep interfering with my mother’s dinner preparations. By then she was bent over a chicken, her brow furrowed as she plucked feathers the butcher had missed.
At dinner, my father took aim at his chicken, fried potatoes and limp green beans with emphatic jerks of the saltshaker, as if he were shaking down a thermometer. The blue-green tattoo of numbers on his forearm bobbed up and down. He had my mother serve him dessert in the living room. That way he could watch his TV programs. Balancing a plate of homemade apple strudel on his lap, he ate while staring at the screen from his favorite spot on the plastic covered couch. During the half hour Tonto helped the Lone Ranger do good deeds on Channel 7, my mother washed the dishes, and I got into my pajamas.
In the morning I opened the bathroom window and marveled to see my breath float away into the frigid air. Despite my mother’s continued extermination efforts with ammonia and bleach, a few ants scurried across the floor tiles. I liked them. Sometimes I’d scatter balled-up morsels of rye bread near the baseboards and watch, fascinated, as tiny troops emerged from beneath the walls and struggled together to carry the bits away.
In front of the medicine chest mirror, I crammed my skirt into thick wool snowpants. The bulky material chafed against my thighs. Although girls weren’t allowed to wear pants to school, the American mothers let their daughters out on even the coldest mornings with bare legs and foldover ankle socks. My mother claimed I’d catch cold that way. As I fastened the shoulder straps, I felt like one of the kishkes, a casing of beef intestine overstuffed with god knows what, she occasionally brought home from the kosher deli. Every time I unzipped the pants at school and pulled them down from over my squashed skirt, I blushed as if I were undressing in front of the class. Cynthia Fleishman, runty-looking and constantly sniffling with allergies, was the only other girl in my class who wore snowpants.
During that morning’s arithmetic lesson, a high-pitched alarm blared over the loudspeaker. A fire drill. I joined the others as we grabbed our coats, gloves and hats. Cynthia scrambled to pull on her snowpants. They didn’t even match her coat. I picked up mine, the wool scratchy against my palm, and quickly tossed them back before hurrying from the room with the others.
Outdoors, patches of snow and ice clung to the concrete and shone in the late morning sun. The cold air whipped against my legs and made them sting thrillingly as we assembled in the schoolyard. I squashed down my socks with the heels of my shoes to expose more leg to the wind. When the all-clear bell sounded, we turned to go back inside, but Miss Gordon looked at her watch and stopped us. “Children, it’s almost noon. You’re dismissed for lunch.” She tucked her iridescent hair into a velvet beret, and disappeared down the street.
A dull ache settled beneath my ribs at the realization I’d be going home barelegged. I stood motionless before the school steps, picturing my mother’s reaction. The others cheered and went off in different directions, running and sliding on spots of ice. Two girls skipped, holding hands. Our mothers would be waiting, mine with a bowl of soup, a frankfurter or hamburger set between slices of rye bread, and a frosted cupcake from the bakery, as fine a meal for a growing child as she could imagine. I trudged home, my legs growing red and blotchy.
The bumpy elevator rose slowly to the fifth floor. I stepped out into a hallway of brown-and-black flecked linoleum squares that led to six identical doors with metal peepholes above my eye level. Nobody locked these doors in the daytime. I turned the dull brass knob and edged into the apartment.
My mother immediately spied my bare calves. “Naomi, why are you walking outside in wintertime with naked legs? You want you should get sick? Go warm yourself by the radiator.”
I lied that the teacher let us grab only our coats because of the fire drill. My mother sighed and pierced her cooking fork into the swollen frankfurter that floated in a speckled pot. Translucent circles of fat dotted the cooking water’s surface.
After finishing the hot dog, I wiped a dab of mustard from the corner of my mouth with my little finger and smeared it on my napkin. I peeled away the ruffled paper from around the cupcake and licked the vanilla frosting while I watched my mother drag a battered suitcase out of the hall closet. She rummaged through it and yanked out last year’s snowpants, my sister’s future hand-me-downs.
“Here, put on these,” she said.
Although my ankles stuck out and I could barely get the elastic stirrups around my socks, she insisted I wear the snowpants back to school.
“Okay children, take out your readers,” Miss Gordon said when we returned. “Who’d like to read the first sentence?”
Lucy Giordano, pretty and smart, who never picked me to go the bathroom with her, raised her hand high. She stood beside her desk, and read aloud. I admired the easy confidence in her voice. Still, I knew I could read every word in this chapter just as well.
Too shy to raise my hand, I kept looking up at the teacher, willing her to call on me. After Cynthia Fleishman read in her halting voice, Miss Gordon said, “Please read the next sentence, Naomi.”
I stood up, coughed to clear my throat, and read in my loudest voice. “I did not kuh-no this was your play house.”
Giggles erupted around me. Lucy and the other girls with long hair, who wore sheer nylon blouses and patent leather shoes without buckles, looked at each other with raised eyebrows and bugged-out eyes. They pressed their lips together when Miss Gordon said, “That’s enough, class. Settle down.” She held up her hand for silence. “The word is know. The k is silent. What did you think kuh-no meant, Naomi?”
This brought more titters from the class.
I felt dizzy, like when I stayed out in the sun too long. I did not answer, and instead slunk into my seat, keeping my eyes glued to my book as others read aloud. Their voices seemed to come from a distance, and I had trouble making sense of their words.
At home that afternoon, I took my usual place at the kitchen table. My mother, clothespins in her mouth, was hanging laundry on the screechy line that ran between our kitchen window and another on the far side of the back courtyard. She fastened the wooden pins onto a damp pair of my father’s floppy pajama bottoms and asked, “So, how vas school today?” I’d never realized before how ridiculous she sounded.
After that, I began to pay close attention to everything my mother and father did or didn’t do. They never ate in restaurants or hired a babysitter on Saturday nights, like the other kids’ parents. Instead, on Sunday afternoons they dragged me and my sister along to the Zaglembie Club, a musty social hall in lower Manhattan, named for my father’s hometown in Poland. It was all fellow survivors and their children, most born after the war in Europe, like me. Only the babies, my sister included, had been born in America.
The adults rarely ventured far from the buffet tables heaped with platters of cold cuts. While they socialized, their tattooed arms filled and refilled their plates. I wished the six blue numbers etched into my father’s forearm were instead a heart with initials and an arrow, like the one Bobby Latella’s dad flexed to make us laugh.
And would my father ever stop saying aber when he meant but? Even worse, he said fingers for toes and stocks instead of socks. I can still hear him calling after me the Sunday morning my friend Marilyn and her mother picked me up to go ice-skating. I watched them exchange looks as he said, “Make sure you take along with you extra stocks so your fingers stay warm in the skates.” And he was old, a lot older than my mother. Years before me, he’d had another daughter and a different wife. I decided to tell friends he was really my grandfather.
Rather than continue to sit at the kitchen table, I started carrying my books straight to my room after school. I said I couldn’t concentrate with my sister babbling away. And I refused to eat the snacks my mother set out. “Mommy, leave me alone. I’m not hungry,” I’d insist.
That spring, Miss Gordon announced a current events project. Every day for a week we had to bring in a photograph from the previous day’s newspaper. In class we’d work in groups to write captions and on Friday bind the pages into a news-of-the-week booklet.
Lucy Giordano and I wound up in the same group. “Oh, this’ll be fun. Let’s make sure we all find the best pictures,” she said, taking the lead.
I felt certain I could count on retrieving a neighbor’s discarded copy of the Daily Mirror or Journal American from the incinerator room down the hall. But when I carried out the garbage after supper that Monday, I found only a crumpled cigarette pack on the shelf next to the chute. I ran up and down the building’s six flights of stairs to check the other incinerator rooms, at one point even opening the chute to peer down the shaft. But I came back empty-handed.
My father had just put down his copy of The Jewish Daily Forward. It had weird lettering I couldn’t read. While he sat mesmerized watching The Cisco Kid on TV, and while my mother was putting my sister to bed, I sneaked out the door in my pajamas to check again. Nothing.
The next day, my classmates took out their assignments, and Miss Gordon made her way down the rows. Cynthia, sniffling into her handkerchief, noticed my empty desktop and whispered, “Here, Naomi. I have extras. Take one.”
She pointed to three sepia-colored photos from the Forward. I could see some Yiddish writing from where she hadn’t cut off the captions completely. Black-and-white pictures covered our other classmates’ desks. I shook my head no, and when Miss Gordon got to me with her rubber star stamp, I mumbled, “I forgot my homework.” She raised an eyebrow, moved on, and pressed two red stars into the extra-credit page in Cynthia’s notebook.
As Miss Gordon continued down the rows, I took out my reader and flipped through it. Dick, Jane, Sally and their friends lived in one-family houses with backyards and barbecues. They spent summer vacations on their grandparents’ farms with horses, chickens, and rabbits. Not even Lucy Giordano, whose grandmother occupied a room in their two-family walk-up, lived like that.
I never knew my grandparents. All four had been murdered. Their generation didn’t exist among the Zaglembie Club families in America. And the closest I ever got to live chickens was on shopping trips with my mother to the kosher meat shop on DeKalb Avenue. I’d watch, horrified and spellbound, as the butcher held down a squawking bird on a wooden block set up in the courtyard behind the store, and in one stroke chopped off its head.
Dick and Jane had a square-jawed father and a perpetually smiling mother. No question those parents knew how to fill out forms and write notes to teachers without the help of a six-year-old. I began to yearn for an American mother, someone who could pronounce her w’s and knew to walk quietly to the back of the room on Open School Day instead of calling out “Hello all the children” as she entered.
Long before I reached adolescence, when my friends finally found their own mothers and fathers mortifying, I’d sigh and roll my eyes at my parents’ mispronunciations and misunderstandings. Like the time my mother asked for my black pen, and laboriously traced over the blue-ink entries on the alien registration form she had to fill out yearly until she became a citizen. She pointed to the instructions to write in block letters. “Ach, I wrote in the wrong color.”
And the embarrassment during my sophomore year in high school when Dave Gold from down the hall, whom I’d had a crush on all year, came over one night to study with me for a math test. He stayed late, and we went into the kitchen for a snack after my parents had gone to bed. As I searched through the refrigerator, he lifted the cover on one of the plastic containers near the sink. My mother’s dentures, a result of the poor nutrition and non-existent dental care she’d endured for so many ears, soaked inside a cloudy liquid. Dave snickered and then burst out laughing when he lifted the lid on the other container with my father’s dentures.
Years later, when I was in college, commuting daily between Brooklyn and Manhattan, my mother picked up a book I’d tossed on my bed. “So you read now Kafka. I read by him everything when I was in school. But Balzac and Zola I liked much better.”
“You read Balzac and Zola?”
“Of course. What do you think, I did nothing in school?”
Later that week I hesitantly asked her to help me translate an essay from German. I received a perfect grade on the assignment.
As I sat on the subway reading my professor’s comments, the little boy next to me squirmed on his mother’s lap. She cooed at him in Spanish, and reached into her bag for a chocolate chip cookie. A few crumbs landed on my paper. I brushed them off, tucked the essay back into its manila envelope, and closed my eyes. Drifting towards sleep, I kept jerking my head up in an unsuccessful attempt to stay awake. The woman beside me, whose shoulder I’d landed on, gently shook my arm. She roused me from a scene where I was teasing my mother by saying kuh-no whenever I meant know. There we were, my mother and I, laughing together so hard that tears streamed from our eyes.