Breath & Shadow
A Journal of Disability Culture and Literature
Breath and Shadow
Volume 11, Number 2
By Susan M. Silver
When it became implicit that Daddy, Daddy with the deep-sea eyes and the embracing smile, would not leave the hospital, Mrs. Edelman approached me after school, almost pressing me against the façade of metal lockers, and told me I was coming home with her. Slightly wall-eyed with disobedient curls the color of bittersweet chocolate, Esther Edelman cut an unusual figure among the faculty. She was the storied taskmaster of the commercial department, where aspiring secretaries learned shorthand, typing, and a smattering of business-world grooming. But she was a study in personal abandon, from the shirttail that hung over her pleated-skirt’s waistband to her habit of hankiless sniffling and her slouchy stance. Despite a distracting air of smug self-satisfaction, a know-it-all nurturing a stash of secrets, hers was an aura of unmatched kindness.
Under a hazy-shade-of-winter sky, the sun overlaid with a netting of clouds, Mrs. Edelman and I drove off in her battered Rambler station wagon through a series of bedroom communities dotting the Palisades across from Manhattan, beneath Italian street festival-style Christmas decorations arching over broad avenues. These unimposing hamlets, many of which offered picture-postcard views of the city skyline, featured only a movie theater, a bank, a library, and perhaps a pizza parlor. Yet they served as havens for artists and writers and the odd Hollywood actor, and were considered by many strategic retreats from the streets of Newark or Brooklyn, idyllic nesting spots.
Barely containing her glee over the capture of a discomfited teen, Mrs. Edelman filled the conversation with prodding questions (“Do you prefer cheerleading over your ballet lessons?” “What are you thinking about majoring in?” “That new math teacher is some genius, eh? Eh?”). My monosyllabic responses seemed to delight her. I wondered if she knew that, like the skeletal remains of fall’s brown leaves, preserved inside the crystalline patches lining the gutters, my mind had slipped into a pre-grieving deep freeze for the expected loss of Daddy.
That this woman I hardly knew always seemed so familiar with me, nodding and twinkling when she encountered me in the high school hallways or the cafeteria, that she looked at me with the barely suppressed love of a childless aunt, I never questioned; my mother had mentioned knowing her from a county just south of here, where my parents had been raised.
As daylight was surrendering to increasingly profound shades of blue and with background music of a duet--stark in the suburban silence--between a church bell’s bong and a cranky dog’s bark, Mrs. Edelman and I mounted the back stairs, past the deserted first floor of a dilapidated frame house, probably a converted barn. In the uprooted winter of my broken family, the Edelman home was a serendipitous sanctuary, and, with the trust of the rescued for the rescuer, I moved gratefully, if tentatively, toward its outstretched arms.
Daughter Meryl, a ripe teenage rose, dropped my coat on a wooden rack, careful, I noted, not to damage the fabled inch-long nails which, were she an Edelman typing-class student, would have been guillotined by Mrs. Edelman’s equally fabled clippers.
Flipping a ruffle-edged apron over her head, Mrs. Edelman instructed, “Meet the family!" smiling knowingly and indicating the living room with her head, and, just before darting into the kitchen, in merrily conspiratorial tones: “Get to know Leonard!”
Cavernous and sparsely furnished, with a silver menorah here and a stained-glass King David reproduction there, the green-carpeted living room, opulently bathed in Beethoven, looked like a loft space or a remodeled gymnasium. On a swayback green sofa with puny legs sat Mrs. Edelman’s mate, Sidney Edelman, a Lincolnesque figure with raised-bridge glasses and a tobacco-free pipe, a prop he placed in his mouth at intervals. Opposite him, in a bridge chair, was son Leonard, a lanky, refined-featured version of his mother. He was contemplating the hand-carved chess figures between them, the board for which was set on a walnut table with an air of Old World antiquity.
A rough reproduction of a young Artie Shaw, Leonard radiated the quirky mystique of a young Ubermensch. Slated to be valedictorian, with perfect board scores, he had his choice of Yale or Harvard, one of which he planned to attend after a summer-length national tour that was an extension of his local newspaper column; he would choose later between law and medicine. On weekends, the Leonard E. Trio--Leonard at the piano--entertained at sweet 16 parties and the like. Where Leonard practiced was a mystery, as there was no piano in evidence. For that matter, Leonard was never seen doing schoolwork, either.
Mr. Edelman, pilling crewneck over white shirt accenting his professorial style, half-rose in awkward but gracious greeting: “Uh, hi, welcome!”
Leonard offered an omniscient grin, not unlike Mrs. Edelman’s, yet strangely distancing. After an appraising glance, he looked through me, then beyond me, and within seconds was back to chess. The unsaid word was in the air: “interruption.”
“Mrs. Edelman, I don’t think Leonard…I mean, you know, I don’t think I’m…”
“Are you for real? Go fix yourself up…It’s the name of the game!” said Mrs. Edelman, waving a wooden spoon in the air as she stood in a sniffly slouch, having paused the cooking. Surveying my chopped locks, she said, “Leonard likes long hair. Hmm…Do you have a fall? Never mind. Go ask Meryl, it’s her bag.”
“You have to cover up the blemishes. You need Corn Silk! Corn Silk!,” Meryl repeated, sounding like a television commercial.
Seated at her pink vanity table, she was brushing her hair as though playing a rare violin, reading the music of her reflected self in the pink-framed mirror. What confronted her was an Arabian Nights-style Breck Girl—sun-sheltered skin and oolong tea-shade hair that fell cape-like to the waist--and maintenance of that image was a clear priority. More than a dozen bottles and containers of perfumes, powders, and creams decorated the vanity’s surface; the walk-in closet was a cornucopia of skirts, dresses, coats, and shoes. This little pink-palace room was without reading material, except some fanzines with headlines about Mick Jagger. About 15, Meryl had a familial look; but she was not a knockoff of either parent, nor was she exactly reminiscent of her brother. Studying her, as one is prone to when confronted with the puzzle of pure beauty, I recalled my mother’s saying that Mrs. Edelman had a fraternal twin sister, Evelyn, a girl celebrated for beauty of biblical proportions, who had never married and was never spoken of.
Following dinner in the kitchen--at which Mrs. Edelman, a dieting devotee, gorged on chicken and rice while Mr. Edelman gave a tutorial on the art of artichoke-dipping--the family convened in the living room. Mrs. Edelman was coiled up against Mr. Edelman on the swayback sofa, tugging his arm like a cat kneading a beloved blanket, the geeky girl with the jackpot prom date. Mr. Edelman, shuffling the empty prop pipe in his mouth, looked tempted by a volume of Dylan Thomas poetry he’d taken out of his personal library, located in one of the far corners of the room. Sitting on two knotty-pine bookcases, the contents of this seat of learning were literary classics by the likes of Proust, Dostoevsky, and Thomas Mann, combined with architecture tomes: probably an estate-sale coup. He had earlier shown me, looking away with a kind of faux modesty, poems about his brother; in one, he asked the earth to be kind to the long-deceased sibling. I thought of beautiful, deep sea-eyed Daddy. Daddy, the father, the husband, the attorney. I wondered whether after he was gone, he would care about the earth that would surround him.
Having watched The Evening News with Walter Cronkite, her sole compliance with homework responsibilities, Meryl had exited in favor of hair-brushing and other beauty rituals. Leonard was dancing an energized little two-step as he bonded to Dave Brubeck’s Time Out album, which was being piped into him via earphones, sometimes flailing his arms in a freeform fashion, sometimes playing an invisible saxophone or bass or drum set.
Mrs. Edelman head-pointed to Leonard: “Go talk to him about jazz!”
“Mrs. Edelman, I really don’t know much about…I really am no jazz buff. Really, you know?…”
“Sooooo? Find out about it! Get into it!” she commanded. “It’s the name of the game!” she said, with the impatience of one struggling to impart the obvious.
Leonard smiled indulgently at my novice questions, gazing into the distance at nothing in particular, and continued his one-man-band dance act. Unfazed, Mrs. Edelman moved on to lead the coffee table-conversation portion of the evening, consisting largely of her gossipy observations. These were laced with what she considered luxurious vocabulary words, which she accented, making her sound as though she had just studied flash cards:
About the school’s head baton twirler: “Corinne Kelly? Beautiful? You think she’s beautiful? Bo-vine!”
The vice principal: “Efficient? You call that efficient? I’d say officious.”
A science teacher: “He has that marvelous laconic wit. But that loquacious wife, Yetta! Yenta!”
At that time, limited coursework in academics was required for business-teacher certification. Mrs. Edelman was humbled by a background she saw as inadequate and impressed with scholastic achievements, which were effectively foreign to her.
Distracted with the image of Daddy as I’d last seen him, struggling for air, struggling for slipping life, I sat in the storage-room size space I’d been assigned, next to the Edelmans’ bedroom, staring at a Latin grammar book without a single declension sticking to my ice-slicked brain.
Mrs. Edelman was having no success in the living room penetrating Leonard’s Brubeck-based musical bubble:
“It’s time to decide on Harvard or Yale. Your father and I are leaning toward Harvard undergrad, Yale law. And you are not exempt from excellence in your senior year, Leonard. I mean grades, Leonard. We want a valedictorian in this family. Music is an a-vocation, not a vocation, Leonard. Leonard??”
On the Saturday night Mr. and Mrs. Edelman and Leonard and I went to the movies, a light snow was falling, a peek-a-boo veil whose frozen threads vanished on landing. We leapfrogged two towns in Mrs. Edelman’s Rambler. There was never a mention of Mr. Edelman’s car, even though in the suburbs, almost no adult was vehicle-less. Outside the little old theater, Mrs. Edelman discreetly handed the ticket money to her husband. Mr. Edelman was more poser than earner, a Luftmesch, literally a “human being in the air”; following a string of cul-de-sac jobs, he had gone into the fur business at a time when it had become vulnerable to nascent taboos. Showing little interest in a career shift, he played the part of phantom university professor with panache. Mrs. Edelman, indulgent of a fantasy the couple both found attractive, seemed to bear the weight of the family’s financial needs like an unsettlingly stoic Atlas.
Once inside, Mrs. Edelman seated Leonard and me together, although it was no double date; Leonard had earlier clarified that by notifying his mother of “my late-night gig.” The Umbrellas of Cherbourg, a Gallic eyeful and a mildly saccharine story of fate-thwarted young lovers, evidently failed to impress the squirming Leonard. During the final credits he was at the back of the theater, chatting up a blondacious clone of Pattie Boyd, the muse-mate to Beatle George Harrison. She was innocent-experienced and full of the confidence that accompanies the gift of good looks that coincidentally conform to the popular ideal: my antithesis.
Mr. Edelman strained for the erudite: “New Wave…progressive-jazz score…vivid cinematography…”
Like a wounded child, Mrs. Edelman wept wordlessly, large drops coursing down her incipiently sagging cheeks and spoiling her half-hearted makeup job. She ran one hand through her chocolate curls and accepted a handkerchief from her husband with the other. “Now, Mommy…” he cautioned softly, while she stood alone, visibly outlined in pain.
The young Esther, I heard much later, had returned from school to discover her half-naked mother dead from having taken enough pills to conclusively quash her secret anguish. The old tragedy was like raw nerve endings in Mrs. Edelman’s emotional epidermis. But she made a U-turn in mood when she spotted Leonard with the Pattie Boyd type. “Eh? Eh?” she said, smiling smugly, her body newly buoyant, and indicating with her head and her arm her maternal pride in the Romeo-in-rehearsal.
The rapturous tone was sustained back at the house, where I found myself unable to sleep due to embarrassing thumping-bumping noises, combined with Mrs. Edelman’s sighs and giggles, emanating from the master bedroom. This was followed by a whispered discussion that was overheard as a skipping soundtrack: “Yale…Harvard…buckle down…Ivy League…lawyer…”
After the February funeral, where tears seemed to freeze in flight at the cold slap across the cheek that was the premature death of Daddy, I returned to school and went about the business of trying to finish my junior year. By the time the scent of the baseball-field grass flooded the second-floor business classrooms, Mrs. Edelman’s absence from school had the rumor mill whirling like the Palisades Amusement Park Ferris wheel. It was “woman’s troubles,” according to one theory. Hospitalized for exhaustion, went another. One wild speculation was that she had traveled to the Southwest for her allergies. Head twirler Corinne Kelly, a typing wiz and known Edelman confidante, stated flatly, like a surgeon giving a prognosis: “Leonard problems.”
“Very thoughtful of you, thanks.”
Mr. Edelman looked visibly moved by my Father’s Day gift, although he was too distracted to open the box. His focus was on the figure in the backyard, seen through the kitchen window. “She’s not well. She’s not right. She’ll be fine. But she’s not well right now," he said in staccato fashion. Leonard would not be matriculating at any Ivy League School; in fact, Leonard had dropped out of high school and run off with his trio to San Francisco. He had run off with Mrs. Edelman’s dreams. As he spoke, it struck me how much alike the Edelmans looked, feature for feature, not just in the way longtime mates develop the same facial expression. In time I learned that the Edelmans shared a grandmother, that they were first cousins.
In the middle of an expanse of green sprinkled with weeds, Mrs. Edelman slumped in a lawn chair, holding a jelly glass half-full of a clear liquid. She looked like just another of the hunchbacked sunflowers scattered around the perimeter. Up close she appeared to have shrunk to a collapsed paper doll in a wrinkled shift dress, her face a road map of recent shocks. Nothing came to my mind but to sit at her feet on the grass.
“Do you know what it’s like to have a child----? Do you?” Her voice was rising with agitation. It was only then that her eyes, worn from waves of tears, showed recognition. “You look just like your father,” she said, suddenly soothed, as if my appearance itself was consolation for her inconsolable woes. She went inside the shelter of a sacred memory: “You know, your father’s family and my family lived in the same apartment house. He came to visit my sister when she was sick. He was so handsome and gentle, sitting and talking with her at her bedside. It was then that I first…” At once, all her unexplained daughter-lust for me was clarified: Daddy had been her first love, too, and a lasting one.
And so, just as Daddy had sat with me through a childhood fever five summers earlier—for the most part simply smiling in serene silence—I sat with Mrs. Edelman in the heat of the afternoon.
Susan M. Silver is a freelance writer with non-fiction credits in People Weekly, Us Magazine, the New York Daily News, and The Saturday Evening Post, among others. Her romance stories have appeared in Lifestyles magazine and Short Stuff. Susan’s passions include films from Hollywood’s Golden Age and photographing the green spaces of New York City’s Greenwich Village, her longtime home.