He had married a young woman named Marcia Pressman when he was just twenty years old, between his junior and senior years at Dartmouth. She lived with him in an off-campus apartment, but by the time he got to Columbia the romance had worn off, I suppose. There are many different versions of that story, none that I can say I really know for sure, except that by the time he met my mother he was already divorced at the age of twenty-four and a law school dropout.
My father had an apartment on Carmine Street in the West Village, where he imagined his life as a poet, a writer, or a philosopher. He was a dreamer, a romantic, a profound thinker. When I asked my mother her first impression of my father's apartment, she said, "Bach was playing on the record player, candlelight flickered on every surface, dinner was on the table. I think his mother sent Carlos, her cook from Riverdale, to supply the food; she used to do that when Paul announced he was a vegetarian. Carlos would show up with beef bourguignon and a note from Henrietta saying, 'You need to eat meat, I don't want you to die.' "
Quite soon in their romance my mother discovered she was pregnant with my eldest sister, Alexandra. She thought the best course of action was to move to Las Vegas; she could make a living dancing in one of the many shows there and raise the baby by herself. She hadn't even thought about getting married. Paul, on the other hand, was excited at the prospect of becoming a father. They were in love so he asked her to marry him. She was turning twenty-four and already tired of show business; getting married seemed like the right thing to do.
They married in June 1960; my mother was six months pregnant. It was a small family gathering at the Waldorf Astoria; she wore a green minidress. Two days later they were on a boat to Israel via Spain. They honeymooned in Spain and then made the journey to Israel, where my sister was born. To this day I can't get a straight answer about why they moved to Israel. I know my father had a job there, but I've never understood what it was or why it was so important for them to be there. I have letters my father wrote to his best friend, Alan Sklar (my godfather). In one he writes, It's nice here. Uncomplicated. Maybe once a week we go to the movies. The landscape is stark, few trees on rolling hills, bright suns and blue skies. And no physical luxuries.
What fascinates me in this paragraph is the word "uncomplicated." My father craved an uncomplicated life, a life where he could just sit back and read his books, write from time to time, teach now and then, and have a peaceful existence. Our life was anything but that. My father was one of the most complicated men I have ever known. My mother, probably the most complicated woman I will ever meet. Our life wasn't drawn from the peaceful blue skies and sun-filled landscapes he speaks of in his letters. Growing up for me was a life in chaos, sometimes beautiful, always filled with love, but much of the time insecure in structure and habitat. I spent most of my childhood trying to navigate rocky terrain and almost all of my adult life, at least up until now, searching for calm.
* * *
After a year in Israel, my parents moved back to New York City, where they lived on the Upper West Side. My mother describes this time as tranquil and ideal in every way. She was a young mother, happy to walk to the park with my big sister, Alexandra; my father had secured a decent job as a copywriter in an advertising agency. Not his ideal job, but now with a wife and a child he needed to make a good living, and even though it wasn't poetry, he still was able to write for a living. They had a boatload of friends, an active social life. They enjoyed going to the theater and to dinner parties. They were a gorgeous couple with the world at their fingertips.
Two and half years after Alexandra, my middle sister, Rachel, was born. My parents were still relatively happy at this point, until my father decided that in order to have a healthy life for the children they should move to the suburbs, to Spring Valley, New York, about a forty-five-minute train ride from Manhattan. This is where my mother says it all went wrong.
With the help of his parents they bought a four-bedroom house on Renfrew Road, in a community where every fifth house was exactly the same. Ours was one level, lifted up about five feet from the ground, with a wraparound porch and stairs leading to the front door. There was a wooded area in the backyard and a small patch of green on the front lawn. The house had a large basement where my mother installed a ballet barre, as the space was large enough for ballet lessons. She held classes there a few times a week; my eldest sister took to it naturally.
As time wore on, my mother felt more and more isolated in Spring Valley, and my father became drained from the daily commute. He would come home from work exhausted, with no energy left for her or the children. When my mother talks about this time in their lives, she always wonders out loud why she hadn't insisted on moving back to the city, where they had been happy.
"I didn't know any better," she says. "And we were so young!"
Instead of fixing the problem, they drifted apart. My father's job was demanding and required him to travel too often, and eventually my mother sought companionship and attention elsewhere. That's where I come in. Apparently I was quite a surprise. It may have been from one of my parents' "makeup sessions," or "let's see if we can make it work" moments. Nothing was planned, and before they realized it, I was on my way into the family. There was a glimmer of hope that a new baby could solve the problematic marriage. That was not the case.