- The Day I Wasn't Jewish
The day I turned eight I decided to become a Catholic. What better way to get even with my parents? Besides, it was easier than running away from home. We had moved to Mexico shortly before, and my Spanish wasn't good enough for flight.
Once I'd made up my mind, I mounted the winding metal staircase to the roof of our small building and traversed the maze of damp sheets hanging limply from the clotheslines. They smelled of laundry soap—hospitals and lemons. After skirting past a row of granite wash basins, I reached the maids' quarters, a foreign country within the foreign country I'd resided in for the past six months, a territory circumscribed by blasting radios, ranchera music, folding beds, plastic flowers, rag rugs and windows pasted over with wrapping paper.
The door to Dolores's small concrete box of a room was flanked on either side by an oil can. One held a tomato plant, the other a red geranium. Dolores stood in the doorway fastening her braid with a wire salvaged from a milk bottle. I followed her inside. [End Page 110]
I didn't need to master Spanish for her to know I was upset. She hugged me, motioned toward her narrow bed covered with a rough plaid blanket and offered me a cookie she'd filched from our pantry. She filched for me. I never saw her eat them herself. "What's the matter child? Why aren't you dressed? And where are your slippers?"
I started to cry. "They are going away." I told her.
"Yes. Mis papás. And it's my birthday, and because I can't have a party like in the States…" I broke down sobbing and wiped my nose on the back of my hand.
The room was like Dolores, plain but comforting. That year's calendar—1951—hung on one wall. It endorsed Tequila Sauza and featured a Mexican movie star. October: Arturo de Córdova. Jesus hung from the wooden cross above her bed. On her dresser, below the cracked mirror, stood a plaster figure of the Virgin of Guadalupe, a comb and an aloe plant, which I'd soon discovered was more functional than decorative. She told me she kept it for its magical properties, to ward off evil spirits. Alongside it lay her rosary. Her "wishing beads" she called them. A postcard from Acapulco was taped to the mirror.
She reached for her comb and started slowly combing my hair. "I see. And that means you will not go to the movies and eat popcorn and afterward cake, as they promised? Come. I will tell you a story about a little girl and a nahual… And then I will go down and speak to your mamá, and then we will do something special for your birthday."
The first time my parents ran away from home, they took me. We moved to Mexico when the only people who did had been sent by large corporations or the FBI or were running from the law or an angry spouse. We'd left New York during a rainstorm with only three suitcases. I wasn't even allowed to say goodbye to my cousins or Mrs. Goodman, my third grade teacher. And I still didn't understand why we had to dash off like that in the middle of the night, although I thought it might have something to do with being Jewish… But at least I was allowed to take some books, my Howdy Doody puppet, my Chinese checkers, the Brownie camera, and my ice skates. "You'll have to carry them yourself," my parents said, so I tied the laces together and hung them around my neck.
The second time they ran away was early on the day I turned eight. I was getting ready for school when the phone rang. I grabbed the receiver. Practically no one ever called us. A strange voice in English with a trace of a Spanish accent said: "Let me speak to your father."
My mother, still in her bathrobe, was seated at the kitchen table...