My paternal grandmother, Adela Behora Franco, whom we called “Nona B.,” was among a group of medicine women from a suburb near Istanbul who healed the sick, told accurate fortunes from the residue left by Turkish coffee, and created amulets that attracted suitors or restored a girl’s dignity after she’d been jilted. Some of the remedies they claim had worked: heating a lump of lead to treat pneumonia; stirring a spoon of mumya powder, from a dried piece of umbilical cord, into in a drink for strength, and performing some kind of outdoor ritual at a crossroads, with knives.
“Black-handled knives,” my father said. “A special charm for girls who went wrong, got cursed or were knocked up. Or for the unlucky who couldn’t seem to get married. My mother reversed their bad luck. She even had stuff to make a mute speak!”
But the ability to help marry off a daughter was the medicine woman’s most popular and valued talent. Not getting married, or being left at the altar, was the worst fate of all; the girl could wind up in a sultan’s harem, ruined and impure.
“It was called the Cure of the Four Corners,” he said. “A girl’s mother has to walk to a crossroads outside of town carrying four, sharp black knives.”
“And do what with them?”
He shrugged. “Who knows? Whatever they told her to do. Maybe she said some kind of prayer. It usually worked, too. There was this woman my cousin Zimbul knew, whose daughter’s boyfriend ditched her the day before the wedding, and then no man wanted her. But her mother went to the kurandera, walked to an intersection with knives, and soon the girl got a proposal.”
“I don’t believe it. She probably took the knife and held it to his throat, or paid him to marry her daughter.”
“No,” my father said, his hand coming down on the table like a hatchet. “This particular spell, it cuts the curse in half.”
Whatever happened, the girl married shortly after. Their favorite happy ending.
From the time I turned fifteen and my first boyfriend asked me to go steady, until the day I got married, my father, on the average of once a month, accused me of being pregnant. Although there never was a basis for his suspicions, I was devoted to reading True Stories and True Confessions magazines, which contained tales of teen pregnancies and wayward girls. All I had to do was check out my figure in profile a couple of times in the hall mirror, and he went nuts.
“Whatsamatter, your stomach’s growing? Which werko was it? I’ll cut his heart out with my pocket knife!”
He trusted no boy, from thirteen up, that stepped in our apartment; they were all bums or werkos, devils, who wanted only one thing. Of course, if you weren’t born a Sephardi you were automatically a devil, so as the years went on it became clear that my father wasn’t going to like any guy I brought home, not Irish, Israeli, Italian or those with names like “Moose.” He did his best to find fault and make them all uncomfortable:
“He smells like medicine”; “His pants are so tight I bet they fit his little brother”; “He comes from bad people, I can feel it.”
They either had weak hair and would go prematurely bald, or weak knees that would make them bowlegged; if they stayed for lunch he imitated them eating, mimicked their speech, or asked them outright if they bought their shirts on Canal Street, implying that they were cheap. “He won’t spend a dime on you, guaranteed.”
I ignored him as much as possible, but most of the time I screamed, cursed, threw things at walls, flirted with and eventually dated sailors, and threatened to one day disappear.
“I wish I were pregnant. At least then, I’d have to get out of here!”
My mother was just relieved boys—any boy—liked me, and laughed off my father’s comments. “You know he’s primitive; he and his brothers think every guy is a bum like them. Remember how his brother Kelly threw a television set down a flight of stairs because he was mad at his son? Pretend your father’s just been released from a mental hospital.”
Considering my tribe, it’s a miracle I had friends at all. If stage-whispered slurs and ridicule failed to deter them, Turkish music played at top volume did the trick. It was a strange contradiction that despite his being suspicious of everyone, my father had no objection to me belly dancing for company. Often, he burst into my room without knocking, arms up, fingers snapping, dancing to “Rampee,” his favorite number on the All Points East album, featuring Gus Vali and His Casbah Ensemble. Despite the distorted faces I made in my fury, when carried away by the music my father became a dervish, coaxing me to join him, like the undulating belly dancers at the Egyptian Gardens beckoned him: “Opa! Opa! Get up!”
I longed to magically evolve into Betty Anderson, the daughter from Father Knows Best, who had a proper, polite WASP father, or Angie Morrow, the protagonist of Seventeenth Summer, my favorite book, who lived in a house, not a building with a stoop, in some town called Fond du Lac. In Angie’s backyard “ripe tomatoes grew,” and “plum trees lined the highway that ran along the lake.” A lake! Also, she had sisters, instead of a goody-good religious fanatic brother, a father who traveled for work so was rarely home, and a soft-spoken, if slightly sickly, mother who drank tea and took daytime naps with the shades pulled down. At the very least, I wanted to be the same—exactly the same—as all the girls I knew. At the time, iconoclast equaled freak. After a long recuperation and my struggle to recover from polio, I felt they owed it to me to behave normally.
But we were different, even, from other Sephardi families. In our house a spilled glass of milk created chaos—if the glass broke, screaming chaos; a chipped tooth, a calamity. I craved order, of the type I witnessed in my best friend Ellen’s home. Her father, Herman, whose wife called him “Honey,” was strict, but never raised his voice. I thought him the perfect model. For hours Herman watched baseball on TV, wearing his Yankee cap, and I heard him speak only when giving a reprimand or a quiet command. He was a little scary, though, when he stood and slowly drilled his forefinger into Ellen’s shoulder if she had not done something called chores. Still, he cared enough to assign them.
“I need chores,” I told Mother.
She looked at me as if she’d never heard the word in her life. “Why? Because Herman- the-Drill gives them chores? You’ll have plenty of those when you’re married.”
“I’m not getting married. I refuse.”
Her bland expression turned into a snarl. “Never say such things out of your mouth! Go dust your window blinds; that’s a chore.”
Herman would not give Ellen permission to watch certain TV shows, like The Twilight Zone. When I asked my father why he allowed me to watch it, even though the show gave me nightmares, he seemed puzzled.
“As long as you’re not in the street, running around with werkos, what do I care what’s on TV?”
I looked just like my father, but was convinced I was not of their blood. Not one of them understood a thing about me, including my favorite aunt. The uncles wanted to know, Why does she read all the time? What’s that little book she writes in—a diary? What? Why is she locked in her room? Break the door!
According to them, I selected the craziest combination skirts and blouses, wore ridiculous white lipstick and too much eye makeup, failed easy subjects in school, and purposely got my brother in trouble. I had only two things going for me:
“Let’s face it,” Mother said, “you were born with a bad disposition, but with a perfect nose. If only I had the guts to fix mine! You always did have courage.”
And I suspected, though she never said, that I still wasn’t walking, years after recovering from polio, as well as she’d hoped. Besides straight noses, dancers, showgirls, chorus lines and the Rockettes were important to Mother. Whenever a TV variety show featured such acts she made me come out and watch with her, as if I might absorb the dancers’ powerful leg muscles by osmosis.
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