We took trips as a family to the Jewish stalls on Orchard Street, to hunt for new fashions. Our mother had regular work on Seventh Avenue runways now, but she'd been shut out from photography. "You're gorgeous, but you're too old," a top agent for print had told her. She was thirty-five. We'd only just arrived in New York, and already her time was running short. On Orchard Street my mother imagined new careers for herself.
We walked to Orchard from the subway at Bleecker and fell into the bustle of black-and-white all-of-a-kind family members. I recognized these people from books, in the All-of-a Kind-Family series about an Orthodox Jewish family on Delancey Street. I felt sorry for the girls and women of this family who had to wear dowdy matching black jumpers while their cluttered stalls held the handbags and belts that were the ingredients of "new looks" for us—we outsiders traveling to them from alternate realms. Our immersion in the project of style felt out of tune with the shtetl atmosphere.
I remember my mother picking through plastic packages at a table with a $1 APIECE sign, and how I felt an oddness before a gray-bearded shop-keeper with a yarmulke who watched us from the other side of the table, Holocaust numbers on his forearm. The shopkeeper seemed to know what we were looking for, perhaps knew all about our plight as outsiders and about shape-shifting and the power of surfaces and the skill behind the craft of assimilating; how succeeding could be a matter of sliding through cracks, of becoming silent and invisible. He glanced at the clothing as if he understood already what we wanted to be wearing that season, as if, sagely, he knew exactly the right tension we must establish between extraordinary beauty and fitting in. [End Page 287]
"I can buy clothes in men's shops!" my mother might have exclaimed just then, a common refrain of hers. I might have looked back at her from this paradoxical moment and noticed her thick, cascading hair, and her beauty even without makeup or jewelry. "Who knew?" she might have been saying, as went her chorus. "All my life I've been trying to fit inside clothes that are too short in the torso and too wide in the ass. Why can't people just do what they want?"
Trauma and celebration intertwined. An interplay of darkness and hilarity created a lack of reality. A filter descended between one's self and the world. One disconnected and acted strange oneself, sane in an insane world. A glance was shifted politely away, the tattoos never discussed; there was no way to make sense of the irrationality.
In an unliteral way, perhaps I understood that the tattoos spoke to a personal kind of horror too. The Kadetskys had left the Old World in the 1870s, and my sister Gina's and my Jewish relatives didn't speak of the Holocaust. It was too grand and big for talk, it seemed—a large blank spot scissored from a photo. An absence. That I was Jewish felt visceral but also vague to me. It was only that year that I would even get my name back, Kadetsky.
My mother kept our old name, McKee, from her now defunct second marriage. I think she did it because the name was a neutral one, the kind that could fit anything inside of it. As a McKee, she could walk through the world a WASP.
I go over these memories trying to figure out if my mother deliberately made herself absent as well, or if, rather, her relentless optimism was in fact real. I think of her on seedy and smelly Houston as we made our way to the clothing stalls. There was music in the air. The O'Jays' "Love Train" might have blared from a boom box, and there would have been garbage bags piled high because of a garbage strike. She might have fallen in step behind the man with the boom box and shifted her gait to the...