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Columns and Articles by Joyce Maynard

True Life Stories:

by Joyce Maynard (from Half-Life, edited by Laurel Snyder. Soft Skull Press 2006)

Added on March 30, 2007

In the half century of my life so far, not a day has gone by that I'm not reminded of the unlikely mix of cultures that produced me, and the endless conflict of the two that was my family of origin. Now I know -- and I've known for a while -- how it works for a person, if she has one parent who's Jewish, and one who is not. If the Jewish parent is the mother, she is Jewish of course, in the eyes of Israel, in the eyes of God. But growing up, what I always felt (and there was no need even to tell me, it was so indelibly a part of who I knew myself to be) was something else: I was half-Jewish. Not so much both as neither. And it was not only my religious identity, or my cultural one, that seemed split down the middle, but my entire universe. There was a part of me that was my father's, and a part that was my mother's, and because my parents were -- increasingly, over the years -- so far apart from each other (not even sharing the same bedroom, for all the years I can remember), I maintained a kind of dance, twirling from one of their worlds into the other, trying to keep them both happy, though neither was.

My parents met in 1939, shortly after my mother -- age seventeen -- arrived in Winnipeg, Canada, to begin her studies as a first year student at the University of Manitoba, where my father had taken a job as an English professor. He was also newly arrived, but from the West Coast of Canada, and in his late thirties. My father, Max, had come to the frigid gray Canadian prairies to escape the aftermath of his British Columbia divorce, and put a certain distance between himself and his reputation (deserved) as a drinker and a romancer of beautiful women who weren't his wife. Out west he'd lived as a painter, but in Manitoba he would straighten out, earn a living, be an English professor.

Where, for him, Winnipeg represented a kind of sober exile (exile yes, sober no), for my mother, Fredelle, arrival in that city constituted a triumphant entry into the world of culture, sophistication and excitement. Born in Birch Hills, Saskatchewan, the child of Russian immigrant Jews, she had spent all her life in a series of tiny prairie towns. Her father would periodically attempt to open a general store, ultimately go bankrupt, and move the family on to the next place. They were always the only Jewish family in town, and always set apart because of it.

My mother's escape had been made possible by her undeliable intellect and drive: she'd won the golden Governor General's award, naming her the best high school graduate in all of Canada the year before and, therefore, a full scholarship to the University. She was the first in her family to attend college, and on her shoulders lay their hope of success in the new world.

My father's family -- insofar as they dared to follow his movements -- took a dimmer view of his future prospects. He was the son of fundamentalist Christians, who'd broken with The Salvation Army for its overly liberal leanings. Raised, for the first ten years of his life, in India, where his parents had served as missionaries, my father knew much of the Bible by heart. It was the only book a person needed, his parents had instructed him. He saw things otherwise, left home, and never returned.

It was the custom in those days for faculty members to have, assigned to them, a promising young student who would read through student papers. Recognizing Max Maynard's extreme handsomeness, charm and powers of seduction, someone in the department had selected, for his reader, the young woman deemed least likely to succumb: my mother. Not only was she bespectacled, serious, ambitious and bookish, she was also Jewish.

He fell in love with her. She resisted the poems he wrote, and the wonderful little drawings he made of her, in coffee houses and libraries, whenever they got together -- ostensibly, to go over papers, but more so now to talk about books and music, art, religion and the nature of beauty. She fell in love with him too, no doubt about it, but because he was a gentile (that, more than the twenty years' age difference, or the divorce, was the unthinkable part), she resisted him for all four years of her college career. But then he followed her to Toronto, when she left for graduate school, and to New England, when she went to Harvard for her PhD. He took a job at The University of New Hampshire, to be near her.

Nearly ten years from their meeting, she married him. Her parents were heartbroken of course, and said they'd never forgive her, but they could never cut their daughter out of their lives. They simply tried, as much as possible, to put out of their minds the identity of their son in law, and as much distance as they chose to keep from my father, he kept from them too.

But almost from the moment my mother made her bold and costly choice to marry my father, a side of him was revealed to her that she (Jewish girl from the prairies) had never understood before, in all those years. Max Maynard was not simply gentile, not simply twenty years older than she. He was an alcoholic. And now, having won my mother at last, he plunged into a mysterious despair. In her telling of it, at least, the very week she moved into his apartment, she found the closet ful of vodka bottles, and the letter to his ex-wife, "I have married a clever little Jewish girl." She never got over it, but neither could she admit her terrible mistake to her parents. They had been right, of course. She should have found herself a Jewish man.

My other grandparents -- my father's parents -- were long dead by this time, and he had largely cut off ties with most of his many siblings, who lived far away. So the only relatives I knew were the Jewish ones, and because they all lived in Canada, and because we traveled there, every summer, to see them (rather than having them come to Maynard territory, in the U.S.) I grew up under the impression, for much of my youth, that Canada was a Jewish country: the Israel of the North American continent. In Canada, we ate matzoh and babka and knishes and borscht. Back home, we celebrated Christmas, played the Messiah and the Joan Baez Christmas album, decorated Easter eggs, In Canada, my mother read Sholom Alechem stories out loud, to my grandfather, in Yiddish. Back home, my father taught me to memorize the poetry of William Blake. "Little lamb, who made thee, dost thou know who made thee?"

The town where I grew up -- Durham, New Hampshire -- was nothing like the isolated outposts of my mother's childhood. We had a university, a good library, concerts and plays, and Boston (with its museums, and my mother's beloved Mozart operas) just two hours away. But in one way, my mother was reliving her own early days in that place: Once again, she was a Jew, surrounded by Christians. No temple in that town (not that we would have attended.) No Matzoh for sale at the store. Now and then, a new faculty member might turn out to be Jewish, and when that pened, she'd invite him over, explaining "he's one of us." But I never felt, precisely, that the us she spoke of included me. She felt outnumbered, and she was. But among those who outnumbered her were her husband and her own children. Because we weren't really Jewish either.

Now I know -- and I've known for a while -- how it works for a person, if she has one parent who's Jewish, and one who is not. If the Jewish parent is the mother, she is Jewish of course, in the eyes of Israel, in the eyes of God. But growing up, what I always felt (and there was no need even to tell me, it was so indelibly a part of who I knew myself to be) was something else: I was half-Jewish. Not so much both as neither. And it was not only my religious identity, or my cultural one, that seemed split down the middle, but my entire universe. There was a part of me that was my father's, and a part that was my mother's, and because my parents were -- increasingly, over the years -- so far apart from each other (not even sharing the same bedroom, for all the years I can remember), I maintained a kind of dance, twirling from one of their worlds into the other, trying to keep them both happy, though neither was.

I need to explain, here, that as Jewish I believed my mother to be -- in how she laughed, how she told a story, how she viewed the news of the world, how she approached a sewing project, or a garden, or the preparation of a roast chicken, or how she talked about a piece of literature -- actual religious conviction never entered in, for her. She had not been raised celebrating the Jewish holidays, or attending synagogue. She didn't keep the Sabbath or sit Shiva or atone on Yom Kippur. Once or twice, growing up, some Jewish family in our town (there were very few) might have invited us for Passover, but not often enough that I ever learned the traditions. My mother cooked bacon, and pork chops. Her Jewish identity (or at least, what I always regarded as the Jewish things about her) resided in her attitude to life: a kind of earthy, soulful gusto, undying curiousity and hunger for knowledge, a lusty sense of humor, a kind of courage and perseverance, and capacity for hard work that seemed connected to the immigrant experience, and therefore, the Jewish one. She favored bright colors, strong spices, jingly jewelry, and big, operatic voices, turned up loud on our phonograph, while she ran the vacuum cleaner.

My father's Christian heritage (though in fact, it had as much to do with being British as with any church) gave him a love for elegant, tasteful clothes, foods like kippered herring and pots of well brewed tea, walking sticks, ascots, and -- as outrageous as his own behavior might have been, when he got drunk, as he did nearly every night -- an abiding desire for correctness and restraint.

Of the two children in our family -- my older sister and me -- it sometimes seemed as if one of us had been designated the Jewish child, and one the gentile. It was said my sister looked Jewish, and I did not. (She had my mother's hair; but where my mother never complained about her thick dark curls, nothing put my sister Rona in a bad mood quicker than a rainy day that would make her hair frizz up. Where mine was dead straight and fine, like my father's.)

In fact, there was nothing more Jewish about Rona, or less Jewish about me, really. The division might have originated out of the simple fact that she'd been named after our mother's mother, and I, after my father's beloved sister, who died young. But in the way that children form so much of their identities based on what their parents tell them about themselves, we heard our stories regularly. I had long legs, and was thought to be athletic. (Father. Gentile.) My sister was supposed to be plumper, more of "the peasant build". (Mother. Jewish.) A few decades passed before it became clear to us that neither portrait bore much resemblance to reality.

In many ways, though, the sad, quiet and painfully growing divide separating our parents (never an earthquake, more like a slow continental drift) seemed to dramatize itself in the division of those two cultures that had come together in our blood, and because I had both in me, it sometimes seemed as if the war was with my own self. And though the obvious origin of the trouble lay not in religious or cultural heritage, but in my father's drinking, even those two ways of living (loving vodka, or hating it) seemed to me part of the package of my divided-up world.

Christmas was the worst time, but not the way a person might imagine. In fact it was my mother -- deprived, throughout her childhood, of participating in the Christian celebrations in those little Norwegian prairie churches in the towns where she'd grown up -- who most reveled in Christmas. She celebrated…with a vengeance. Our house was decorated, top to bottom, inside and out. Carols played daily, from Thanksgiving through the twenty fifth. The canisters were filled with half a dozen kinds of cookies. Presents piled high under a tree, whose branches drooped with ornaments. My mother particularly liked nativity sets. We had several. She liked to call the baby Jesus "our boy."

My father -- raised to believe in Jesus as the son of God -- was sickened by the display. He had celebrated Christmas as a child of course, but not with presents (his was the single gift, every year, of an orange) but with joy over the birth of the savior. Now, observing my mother's holiday excesses, he grew morose. "Mammon," he would say, when she came into the house with yet another armful of shopping bags. "All is mammon." Then he'd go up to our attic and get drunk.

As much as my father had seemingly left the church behind, decades before, he still held a reverence for what that day represented, and for the Christian tradition. Many mornings -- most, in fact -- when I came downstairs for breakfast, the book he'd be reading at the dining room table (after a night of drinkingwould be the Bible. Heavily annotated, by him.

He didn't go to church, any more than my mother went to synagogue. But we had a Sunday morning tradition, he and I. Not every Sunday, but on certain ones -- Easter was always one -- we'd drive into town and pick up a bag of freshly roasted Spanish peanuts at the little newsstand where we bought our New York Times. Then we'd park across the street from the Episcopal church, eating the peanuts and talking. He said he just liked watching the people walking into church (and out again; we stayed that long). But there were also bells. And sometimes you could hear the choir singing too.

All my life, I'd felt like an observer, on the outside of one group or the other. In my teenage years I sought a way of belonging, and found it (like so many half-Jewish types before me) in a Unitarian church. (Not even a full fledged church. We called ourselves a "fellowship.")

We met on Sunday mornings alright, but there was no choir, no minister, no stained glass windows, no prayers. We talked about things like the population explosion, or the importance of crop rotation in third world countries. I taught Sunday School, leading nature hikes and doing craft projects with children, and raised money for welfare mothers and Vietnam protests. "Joyce has found religion," my mother laughed. More and more, my father drank, and pored over his art books, his bible, and his Blake.

The year I turned eighteen -- gone from that house, at last, to college -- my parents separated, and then, a year later, divorced. In years past, it had always been my father and I who put up our tree together. That first Christmas after he was gone, when I came home, I knew it would be my job, alone.

I headed out, as usual, to the place where he and I had spent so many chilly December days over the years, looking for the perfectly shaped tree. I spent a long time, walking up and down the rows, looking.

I could not find one good enough. Could not imagine the tree I could bring home, to redeem us from the oceanic sadness of that season, that year. And still, I felt a need to salvage it in some way, to make something happen that would transport my mother, my sister and me, out of the sorrow of all that day, and its legacy, had symbolized for us.

In the end I didn't buy a single tree. I bought five of them. And extra stands. The concept, as I explained to my stunned sister, was to create "a Christmas grove" in our living room.

"A magical forest," I said.

"Aha," she said grimly, hours later, when I'd finally got the furniture out of the way, and set up the trees. "A Christmas hedge." We still played the Joan Baez record that year. And for once, nobody got drunk. But the trees were taken down, hastily, as soon as the day was over.

I know there must have been other occasions, but I can remember only one other day, ever, when I saw my two parents together again. It was my wedding, five years later.I
I married an extraordinarily handsome, blonde, non-Jewish man, an artist. He looked a great deal like my father. This never occurred to me, until shortly after the death of my mother. I had brought home a life-mask, cast from my father's face, back when he was in his thirties, shortly around the time he and my mother met, most likely. At the point when I brought home this life mask from my mother's home, my parents had been divorced for years by this time; my father had been dead for seven years. But my mother had kept this mask, up to her death. Her second husband -- a Jewish man, a man she would have called "one of us," had suggested I might want to have it, and he was right of course.I hung it on the wall and my youngest son asked me, "What's that mask of our dad doing there?"

But back when I got married, the resemblance never occurred to me. Not the physical resemblance, or any of the rest, either. The allure that had existed, of a man whose background and origins had been so different from my own. The sense that in marrying a man from another world, I might join him there, instead of what happened, which was that both of us remained, forever in some ways, strangers in each other's countries, unable to fully speak the language of where the other came from. Early in our time together, I remember trying -- playfully, then -- for a full hour to teach my new husband how to pronounce the word tuchis.

He couldn't make that sound, at the top of his palate, or the back of his throat, or wherever it is that a Jew forms those sounds, and even a half Jew does.

My husband and I were married in a church. With hymns sung, like the kind my dad and I used to listen to, in the car, when I was little. I loved church music, not so much because I believed all the words, but because I loved how I felt, raising my voice in song that way, in a churchful of people who were doing the same. Lifting my voice, opening my lungs, I felt as though I belonged to something large and wonderful, instead of outside of it.

So we had an organ at our wedding, and a minister who read from the Bible. But to honor my mother, and the part of me that was a Jew, I also wanted to walk down the aisle with both my parents the way it would be in a Jewish wedding -- one on each side, though by this time, they had been divorced for years, and no longer spoke to each other.

The church was very small -- a tiny New England church, with a narrow aisle up the center. Too narrow for three people, it turned out. Particularly when a gulf wide as a canyon seemed to separate two of them as it did now.

So in the end, it was just my father who walked me down the aisle. I recognize now how much that hurt my mother. (She had suggested that my stepfather -- son of a cantor -- might sing something in Hebrew that day. But I didn't know Hebrew. I'd never heard a cantor. That wasn't part of what I'd grown up with. And her Jewish husband wasn't my father, either.) Later, she would tell me, by way of explanation, speaking of the hymn that had been played for the recessional, "How could you do that? My friend Beatrice was there. A holocaust survivor."

You've got Christ and Hitler confused, I told her. And anyway, you did not raise a Jewish daughter. You raised a half Jewish one.

It didn't matter, in the end, that there had been a time -- all the years of my growing up, in fact -- in which she, too, had sung carols about the birth of Christ, set out those nativities. She was Jewish. She had married a gentile, and in the end that had turned out to be a very poor idea. She adored her children of course, but she had also given birth to at least one daughter who was not, as she would have put it, "one of us". And by marrying the man I did, I seemed, perhaps, to have chosen my father. In the end, he and I parted, but she never lived to see that day, and if she had, that would have brought her no joy.

Like me, my own three children are Jewish in the eyes of Israel, though even less of the blood of my grandparents runs in their veins than mine. And I am not sure any of them could pronounce the word tuchis. As few Yiddish words remain in my vocabulary, they know less.

My daughter does, in fact, look like my mother, more than I do. She has thick, wonderful wavy hair, dark skin, an exotic unplaceable look that has her forever answering the question: what is your heritage?

She and I were having dinner with a friend, a while back, and I found myself telling a story about my mother, and about this whole question of being Jewish, and marrying someone who was not. The story concerned a time my mother attended the wedding of the son of her best friend from college days. Her friend was not Jewish, but this son was marrying a Jewish woman. And the bride's Jewish parents were there, and they were looking upset and depressed.

Seeing this, my mother (as she told me later), had approached the parents of the bride. She knew, she said, exactly what they were thinking about, and she knew how she could ease their sorrow too.

"I want you to know," she whispered to the parents of the new bride, "that I have known Greg -- the groom -- since he was born. I changed his diapers. He may not be Jewish, but he is circumcised."

In her telling of this story, the bride's parents then threw their arms around her, expressing gratitude and joy. He might be a goy, but it wasn't quite so bad as they'd thought at least.

There it was, the old, unbreechable divide between the Jews and the gentiles. And even if the loins might look roughly the same, what issued forth was not. There was the lesson of my childhood, and there, across the table from me, sat my own one-quarter Jewish daughter, looking baffled as I told the story. A young woman -- age twenty seven now -- in possession of even less knowledge of Jewish religious tradition than her mother had been, growing up.

"I don't get it," she said. "Why would it have been so terrible if he wasn't circumcised?"

Child of my heart, flesh of my flesh. She didn't know what it meant to be Jewish.

And there I sat, reminded: I did not come from the same country as my mother. Nor from the same place, as my own precious daughter. I am both and neither, all and none. But where once I saw myself, because of this, as belonging nowhere fully, I like to think now that I belong anywhere, always.

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