Excerpt from "A Skirmish in the Desert"
Ask my elderly mother how she is.
"When I see you we'll talk about the good things."
"Is something wrong?"
"All quiet on the Western Front."
It's the first salvo by the master tactician.
"Oh, my poor geraniums," she says.
"Why?" asks the innocent daughter, expecting a tale of horticultural woe.
"There's no one here to appreciate how beautiful they are."
I call upon my skills as a simultaneous translator, honed not at the United Nations but in a railroad apartment in upper Manhattan. The English translation of almost anything my mother says to me is: "You don't spend enough time with me."
Occasionally she crosses the no-man's-land of innuendo and reveals herself. "Don't you miss me?" she asks.
"I just talked to you yesterday."
"Talking is not seeing." This is a conversation worthy of Oedipus and the Sphinx. And why not? Mother was born in Egypt seventy-five years ago and she has always known the answer to the riddle of the Sphinx, namely, Never speak directly of painful matters. This is a precept instilled very early in the life of a Sephardic woman. Arabesques of hyperbole surround us from birth.
Here is my mother's account of a visit to a dying acquaintance. "I went to visit Angela on Saturday. First I took the number 4 bus, then the 96th Street crosstown, and then I transferred to the Second Avenue bus. It went through terrible neighborhoods and it was very slow. But on the way back I took the bus that goes up Third Avenue, and that was fascinating. It goes through an Indian neighborhood. I felt like a tourist. At 66th I crossed to the west side and got off at Lincoln Center. They are doing The Student Prince at the State Theater."
"But Angela--how is she?"
"It's better for you not to know."
Thus was I spared the news of the death of family friends, people who had known me as a child--whose funerals I would have wanted to attend, whose kin I would have em¬braced or written and who would probably always consider me bereft of feeling and common courtesy. My parents, when I confronted them time and time again, said they didn't want to depress me.
When an uncle of mine was in a coma, my father snapped, "He'll be fine, let's not spoil our dinner." Subject to the slings and arrows of corporate misfortune, he maintained that everything was going to be all right as long as it was not discussed at the dinner table. And yet there was menace everywhere: Speak to an insurance agent and you'll be cheated; if you go out at night you will be mugged; eat olives without bread and you'll get worms.