When I was a little girl, I was obsessed with gold cross necklaces. I was about 8, and Jewish for all intents and purposes, so naturally this caused a stir in our house. We had a nanny, Mary, who lived with us. She was from the British West Indies and wore a light blue nurse’s uniform. Her skin smelled like gardenias and cocoa butter and she did Bible studies in her room at night, when I was supposed to be in bed. Sneaking glimpses of her Bible and notebooks, I zeroed in on the cross emblazoned on them. Bingo, I thought.
While Soul Train played on her small TV with the sound turned down, Mary would read Bible stories to me, eventually giving me colorful, illustrated versions from her church’s Sunday school archives. I acted nonchalant, as if it was the most normal thing in the world to talk about Jesus. Mary knew, much better than I did, that my Jewish father would likely object to his only daughter being evangelized under his roof. And my Jewish father had a temper. We kept our lessons low key, but they were anything but. I was trafficking in contraband.
My motivation was less than noble – a glittery gold cross that teased from the throat of my classmate, Allison Scully. Allison was allowed to wear ripped jeans to school, had blonde hair and a tan-all-year-round complexion. She was not Jewish and I wanted to be her. I was eager to learn everything I could about this exotic object, this cross; so casual and glamorous, winking at me from Allison’s collarbone.
“Chhhh . . . ” Mary sucked her teeth in frustration, after I’d asked, again.
“Child, cha gonna getcha necklace when ya finish your studies!” she sighed, leaning over me in the bathtub, pouring cups of water on my baby-shampooed head.
“The gold from my country, is sooo beeauutiful,” Mary said, getting a far off look in her eye, her musical voice dipping with each inflection.
I envied that place of aqua ocean and sun-warmed metal so far from our Jersey suburb. I was a half-breed and I knew it; precipitously wedged between two cultures and two parents. One, scarred by nuns and guilt. The other, chasing skirts instead of Torah. Mary proudly showed me her cross, tucked discreetly behind her powder blue collar. She had something I wanted and it was more than a necklace.
When the day came and I’d correctly filled in all the blank spaces in my workbooks, I casually approached my mother in the kitchen after she’d gotten home from work. Mary told me that I couldn’t wear the cross if I wasn’t a Christian, and to become one I would need to ask my mother’s permission. Easy enough, I thought. I was a good student, loved by my teachers. Student Council Secretary. Star of Princess and the Pea. I wasn’t used to hearing no from my mother. That was my brother’s milieu.
Poor Mom. Working her her tail off at Macy’s. Sitting in traffic on the George Washington bridge, worrying about my father’s inability to keep a job, and my brother hammering his kindergarten classmates. The last thing she needed was a grenade packed with religious identity issues, smuggled into her home, and lobbed from her daughter’s 3rd grade hand. If I’d been gay, or a terrorist, that would’ve been better received than “Mom, I want to become a Christian.”
As the words left my mouth, I was hushed and pulled to the dark of the front stairwell. My father was in his usual spot, with his usual drink, in the den across the hall. “Whatever you do,” she whispered, “don’t tell your father.”
I felt the pit of my stomach drop. My mother was a lapsed Catholic who’d speak fondly of midnight mass at Christmas. We always had a tree. My father called it the Hannukah bush. Surely, she would support my decision. She left me in my reverie to rescue my brother, who was dangling from the second floor landing.
Who did I think I was anyway? I thought, Olivia Newton John? Farrah Fawcett? Allison Scully? Or some other ne’er do well blond, blue-eyed goy with scrapbooks from first communion. What did I think was going to happen if I had that necklace?
When I think of it now, I am moved by my mother’s act of love for my father. There was a time when they were in love, but it was long gone. I saw it in the pictures hidden in boxes in the cedar closet; a beach vacation, my mother’s bottle blonde hair nearly to her waist. My father’s dark tan and athletic build. He was 17 years her senior; he had already had a wife and family, a family he left in Westchester to be with the twenty-three year old shopgirl. They were exotic to each other, and it fueled the complete remaking of their lives. Then something happened to them, I don’t know what. I remember walking in on them one night in the den, watching TV and silently drinking. I watched her pick up his long arm and drape it around her shoulders. He scuttled away without a word.
For whatever reason, that night on the stairs she took great care to protect him. To protect his Jewish-ness, that foreign element forbidden from her white-curtain Irish upbringing. Maybe the one thing about him she still loved.
Recently, I phoned him from my office at the Southern church where I work.
“You know what,” he said, “when you were a kid, you begged me to send you to Hebrew school.” I could hear him smiling through the phone.
I did? I thought, and waited breathlessly for some additional revelation of my childhood self. “Why didn’t you?” I asked. Silence.
“Well,” I retorted, half sarcastically, “blame yourself I’m not a Jew.” He calls me “The Jewish Minister.” When I visit, I’m careful not to wear my cross. It keeps things light between us.
I kept prodding about the Hebrew school comment, fascinated with this part of my history. “Well, your mother wasn’t interested.”
“Dad,” I said, “she was far more interested in your Jewish-ness than you were.”
“I never knew that,” he said, his voice strained.
“I never knew.”