If my mother is to be believed, I spontaneously began reading at three and a half. I use the word spontaneous purposefully; in the way “spontaneous combustion” comes from nowhere, so did this magical ability to read, and it set my imagination on fire.
In my immigrant family, this was pretty much a miracle. For the most part, my parents’ educations were suspended in 1939, their childhoods cancelled by the great planet-spanning conflagration that was World War II. My mother’s English was limited, and my father worked until late, often coming home after we were asleep. I pronounced the word “Wednesday” as “VED-niz-day” until I was in kindergarten.
Enter Dick and Jane. The characters in Fun With Dick and Jane were my introduction to American life. The cheery 1950s artwork looms large in my psyche, the boys all well-groomed, with crisp, nicely-pressed shirts tucked into their crisp, nicely-pressed pants, the girls in frocks with white lace collars, their hair, helmets of perfect golden waves.
Oh, how I admired Jane’s poofy dresses and ankle socks! See Jane’s parents sitting on the grass and smiling as the kids turn somersaults! See Father juggle! See Dick and Father throw a football around! See Dick and Jane visit the State Fair and ride the cotton-candy-colored ponies around the carousel! Everyone smiled a lot. They had a smart cocker spaniel named Spot, and a fluffy orange kitten called Puff. Best of all, their grandparents lived on a FARM! My immigrant grandparents lived in an apartment. (See Helen turn green with envy.)
Dick and Jane clashed wildly with my American experience. Where were the mother and father who spoke Yiddish when they didn’t want their children to understand? Where were the grandparents with beards and babushkas, the plastic covers on the couches, the cutting sarcasm, the adults shouting at each other in thick accents or foreign languages across plates of gefilte fish?
I pored over those illustrations, seeking clues to the way real Americans lived. I began trying to mold my parents into the correct pattern.
Me: Can I have a dog?
Them: No. What you need is friends. Go out and make some friends.
Me: Look at this picture, Dick and Jane’s family are camping out in the forest.
Them: We spent enough time in forests during The War.
And that was pretty much that. I didn’t understand what my Holocaust survivor parents found important, and they couldn’t fathom why their American-born daughter cared about such silly things. I turned to books for the life my parents couldn’t give me.
In the year that I was seven, Mom’s hip younger sister came to visit us, and stayed for six months. In that span of time, she bought paperback novels. When she returned to Montreal, she left them in the bookcase.
Yes, reader, I was too young, and yes, I read them anyway. Some of them I understood completely, some only a bit. (Slaughterhouse Five, I’m looking at you.) Reviewing the list, I can see that they shaped the way I still think today, and by extension, the way I write. I must have read To Kill A Mockingbird a hundred times, captivated by its descriptions of a free range childhood and its uncompromising sense of decency and social justice. Ken Kesey’s One Flew Over the Cuckoo’s Nest educated me about Rebelling Against The System; The Spy Who Came in From the Cold, by John LeCarre, taught me about bad guys who are actually good, and good guys who are actually bad, and the duplicitous nature of governments; and Dune and The Hobbit taught me that it was okay to make up stories that take place long ago and far away, or at some time in the distant future, and that these stories can actually be about real things going on right here and right now. Peyton Place, by Grace Metalious, taught me that under the hood, America was not all Dick and Jane.
As I grew older, the truth slowly began to reveal itself. No one’s lives were like Dick and Jane’s, even those that, on the outside, seem golden and blessed. Dick and Jane were a dangerous fiction. Everyone has their peckel, their secret burden of woe.
Eventually, I discovered that the children of Holocaust survivors had a great deal in common, and that I could find comfort and healing in talking with them. Eventually, I discovered that my experiences as the child of Holocaust survivors were strikingly similar to the experiences of children of other immigrants. Eventually, I discovered that even the descendants of pilgrims who came over on the Mayflower don’t have Dick-and-Jane lives. Life has a way of cracking us open. It is the cracks that make us who we are, and it is the cracks that bring us all together.