ALL POINTS EAST (Chap 1, part 2) from the forthcoming Knife at the Crossroads memoir
“Running around with devils” might have been a fear passed down from his mother, Adela Behora Franco, whom we called “Nona B.” She was among a group of medicine women, all from the same geographic area, near Istanbul, who healed the sick with their home remedies, told accurate fortunes from the residue left in a cup of Turkish coffee, and created amulets that were said to repel curses or attract suitors, whatever you needed.
For homely girls who were having trouble getting a guy to marry them, there were certain spells and rituals; there were also “treatments” that restored a girl’s dignity after she’d been jilted.
“And the schmuck who ditched her,” my father said, “got cursed good. He had back trouble for life—or worse, if you know what I mean.”
Some of the remedies our grandmother used, that our family swore worked, was heating a lump of lead in a bowl to somehow treat pneumonia and other breathing maladies, stirring a spoon of mumya powder—from a dried piece of a baby’s umbilical cord—into a glass of milk, for strength, and conducting rituals at crossroads and intersections, with knives.
“It had to be black-handled knives,” my father said. “This charm was for girls who got knocked up, and then the guy wouldn’t marry them.” He demonstrated by twisting a cap off an imaginary bottle: “Just like that, my mother reversed their bad luck.”
No rituals or home remedies were ever in writing. Turkish women passed down their skills orally, but only to their daughters. My nona had four sons, so most of her cures were lost. Whatever my father gleaned about his mother’s magical talents came from remembered stories.
Not marrying, or the horror of being left at the altar, was the worst fate of all, second only to being kidnapped and winding up in a sultan’s harem, wherein you were deemed ruined and impure for all time. The ability to help marry off a daughter was the medicine woman’s most popular and valued talent.
“It was called the Cure of the Four Corners,” my father said. “See, the 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 la endivina told her to do. Maybe, say some kind of prayer in Hebrew or Ladino. Whatever they did, it worked. I know because my cousin Zimbul knew a woman who was under this spell. After her daughter’s boyfriend ditched the girl, on the day of her wedding, no man would have her. A year went by, and finally the mother consulted with the endivina, who made her go to an intersection holding four knives. Soon as she did that, like in a week, the daughter got a proposal.”
“And you believe that? Probably, the mother held one of those knives to the guy’s throat, or gave him money to marry her daughter.”
“Wrong!” My father’s huge hand came down on the table like a hatchet. “This particular spell not only works, but it cuts the wedding curse in half.”
There was no arguing with him when it came to the crossroads story. Anything to do with getting married was their favorite happy ending.
* * *
I looked a lot like my father but was convinced I was not of their blood. How could I be
when none of them, including my favorite Tante Allegre, who adored me, understood a thing about me? My uncles on both sides were mystified: Why does she read all the time? She’ll always wear glasses! What’s that little book she writes in—a diary? What? Let’s see what it says! She can’t lock herself in her room—break down the door!
According to them, I dressed badly, too, selecting crazy skirt-and-blouse combinations
where “nothing matches!” I wore dark red lipstick and pancake makeup one day, and white lipstick that made me look “like the living dead,” the next. In school, I was close to failing math and even easy subjects because I liked to cut, and at home I was the demon who always got my brother into trouble. According to Mother, I had only a couple of things going for me:
“You were born with a bad disposition but gorgeous hair and a perfect nose. If I’d only had the guts to fix mine! And courage; nobody can say you don’t have that.”
I knew she had hopes that after so many years past the polio, I’d be walking better, even perfectly. Dancers, showgirls, chorus lines and the Rockettes, in addition to straight noses, were important to Mother. Whenever a TV variety show featured such acts she’d wake me up and make me come out to watch them, even though I fought her and screamed I didn’t care. Maybe she thought I’d absorb the dancers’ powerful leg muscles by osmosis.
At some point a switch got turned on inside me that made me care more about knowing things than about putting on makeup. And I needed more than True Confessions offered. Voracious, I read everything we were assigned in school, cover to cover, whatever I could carry home from the library, and any book I found lying around the house, including Harold Robbins and other authors Mother loved whom I’d never read twice. Nor was it beneath me to clip a New Yorker or two from our dentist’s office.
At about this time, I was asked to join a club started by a few of the neighborhood girls. If our club ever had an official name, I don’t recall it, nor why we existed at all, but I did contribute and recite the poetry I had begun writing. The Beatles’ “I Want to Hold Your Hand” had just been released and we played it endlessly in whoever’s house the club met. The song gave me ideas for poems; holding hands was such a simple thing we all did with boys, yet it became significant in song. I composed simple life stories in my head; they formed in school and then I transferred them from memory to my diary when I got home.
The rhythm of poetry had always soothed me, as did the pace and brevity of the O. Henry stories when I was hospitalized at age eight. Short pieces that resolved themselves quickly were good for keeping a bedridden child occupied for a couple of hours, and you could read them in spurts. These were my first loves before I discovered novels.
Writing poems was considered a particularly silly indulgence. My parents were thrilled that it was something I did quietly, at home, without torturing Charlie, and my aunts, who practically lived in our apartment, were grateful I wasn’t blasting the stereo, but they all considered this poetry thing a silly phase. This was a typical response when I wanted to share my work:
“Wanna hear this terrific poem I just made up about snow?”
“Does it rhyme with NO?”
“But it sounds like a song, listen, it’s called—”
“It’s called—better if you read it tomorrow.”
“Or, how ‘bout you read it yesterday?”
Their ridicule did not deter me from composing, but it did not encourage me, either. My only comfort was that most of the girls in our club said I was “witty.”
By the early sixties, I balanced and walked quite well, despite non-functioning quad muscles in my left leg. My mother and my whole extended family seemed to forget—wanted to—that I’d ever worn braces, walked with crutches, sat in a wheelchair or been near death. The years of illness and hospitalization never happened. Polio was over. It no longer existed. A thing of the past. Wiped out, at home and in the world at large.
That was okay with me. Mother insisted I be treated no differently than any of my cousins. If I couldn’t do gym in school, I’d be forced to sit there anyway and watch. When company came I belly-danced if they made me, and I kept up with the best of them. Trouble was, I had grown to hate anything Turkish or Sephardic, did not want to hear the music or get dollar bills slapped on my forehead. On those occasions when they pounded on my door for me to come out and entertain company, I would lie very still, fists clenched, and will them all to disappear, literally counting out loud, like a mantra, the days until I would turn eighteen.
That they were primitive old-country was only part of it; when both sides of the family came together, one never knew what would happen. Most often, it was the usual Sunday vijitas, informal visits that Turks had enjoyed for hundreds of years of Sundays, with delicious foods, like cheese borekas, spinach fritadas and sweets—including mustachudos, Tante Sultana’s famed almond-walnut balls dipped in white powdered sugar. But even the loud Turkish music couldn’t drown out the fights.
Any routine visit, no matter how joyous, was liable to erupt, like a summer-lightening
thunderstorm, into a screaming fracas. Brothers, wives, sisters-in-law, all eventually had to be physically separated. This usually occurred because someone had taken a “punto,” an insult to his or her honor. A deep offense was to not give proper respect to the eldest sibling, who was always right, no matter what the issue, and who was usually the most easily insulted.
Say you had labeled your brother-in-law’s new Chevy Impala a “light car,” claimed that it was not as heavy as your own Buick. Perhaps you were just thinking out loud. But if you said it out of your mouth, he might take a punto:
“You called my car light? Light?”
You had disrespected his vehicle choice and its weight.
My father, the oldest of the surviving brothers, took puntos from Kelly or Albert on the average of once a month, most often concerning money. Whether it was gambling debts, a secret stash they claimed he had, or a dispute over goods that had fallen off a truck, they’d argue, then yell, then raise fists, coming close to punching each other out. Finally, they’d not speak to one another for weeks, or even months.
On Mother’s side it was Tante Allegre, the oldest sister, who took puntos over food. The correct height of a spinach fritada was a significant issue: Tante’s spinach pie was high and fluffy; Mother’s was flat and crispy, but equally delicious. Sultana’s fritada was never in question or even discussed, because she added potatoes to stretch it, making it, therefore, “inauthentic.”
Eventually, the offending sibling was compelled to go to the injured’s house and apologize, which, grumbling, Mother always had to do.
“Now I have to go tell my sister, again, that her tall spinach pie is far superior to my short one, and that I’m so wrong to make a flat fritada!”
As far as I know, the brothers never apologized to each other for anything, no matter
what the issue, and went years carrying the same old grudges.
My younger brother, altogether different from me, seemed also to be born of other
parents. A solemn, obedient boy, he developed early on a penchant for Judaism, burying himself in Talmud and Torah, and studying for his bar mitzvah portion years before the event. When I passed my brother’s room he was either bent over a textbook or a Bible.
To practice “laying tephillin,” which boys do after their bar mitzvah, he swayed back and
forth in prayer, facing East, wearing two strange, small black boxes called phylacteries, one on his forehead and one wrapped in leather around his left wrist. I tried many times to open one of those little boxes to see what was inside, but he managed to stop me. “It’s forbidden! They’re holy words.”
We were so not observant, that I think Charlie felt the need to change us. While I cared more about perfecting tongue-kissing in theory and making out in general, or singing along with the Ronettes and other girls’ groups, my brother was honing his Jewishness. At eleven, Charlie was thrilled to be accepted into the Bronx Mt. Eden Synagogue choir led by Rabbi Hollander, and was invited to travel with the rabbi to Grossinger's Resort, in the Catskills, to entertain. Of course, they allowed him to go.
“But I’m five years older,” I cried. “Why can’t I go away for a weekend with my friend Cheryl?”
“When I go to a pajama party at my brother Albert’s house,” my father said, “you can go away overnight, too.”
“I wish you would go somewhere—to the Turkish baths every weekend, like you used to!”
“Oh, I’ll bet you do.”
Charlie’s cantorial voice erupted in song at any given moment, especially at the dinner
table when we were all yelling at each other. He had a beautiful voice and truly loved to sing, but he also did it as a diversion. Decades later he confessed that he lived in perpetual terror of our father exploding and finally clobbering me.
My brother’s adoption of devout orthodoxy at eleven, and the desire to become a haham,
delighted Mother, whose father had been a respected Sephardi rabbi, first in Turkey, and then in New York. But his religious fervor puzzled my father. From time to time, I saw Dad shake his head in wonderment as he stared at his son, and mutter, to no one in particular, “Dinguno sabe ke avla! Nobody knows what he’s talking about!”
Charlie became my soother and peacemaker early on. If he thought I was feeling lonely,
he made up an excuse to stay home and keep me company; I knew it and he knew I did, though we never spoke of it. This goodness gave me an edge: I commanded, and he was required, to do my bidding. It could be anything from going to the candy store down the hill to fetch me a vanilla ice cream cone with chocolate sprinkles—if he brought back the rainbow kind I’d send him right out again—to being my lookout when I finally did make out with boys. And even though he was a saint who always complied, I still felt the occasional need to hide his favorite skullcap and/or fringed prayer shawl.
Charlie worked hard at keeping our household balanced between good and evil. My role was werka mala, fiery devil, and Mother’s, the wicked witch who would bring me down. When singing failed to stop our fighting, my brother switched to quoting from the Old Testament or the obscure teachings of a certain Rabbi Nachman of Breslav. These quotes lived on the tip of his tongue and popped out just as Mother’s raised hand was about to come down hard on some part of me. At that moment, he’d burst forth in song or recite in Hebrew, something like:
"Demons bother only those that bother them!”
These interjections, during our most violent fights, froze us in place long enough for me to catch my breath and for Mother’s eyes to fill up as she remembered her rabbi father. We’d wait while my brother explained the origin of the quote and its meaning:
“And that was from the Babylonian Talmud!”
And then we’d resume.
* * *
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