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ESSAY / The Sexual Revolution / Rochelle Jewel Shapiro

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My mother first saw my father in 1935 when she stopped into a grocery to buy a jar of Nescafe because the woman she rented a room from said she could use her kettle. When she saw him behind the counter, his middleweight boxer build, his ocean eyes, and the scar on his right cheek from his last bout that had earned him the money to buy his business, she swore that his floor tipped, sliding her toward him. She remembered exactly what she wore—a white straw cloche with wooden cherries pinned to the brim and a pink dress with butterfly sleeves. 

“I’m Herman,” he told her in his Yiddish accent that had sounded so man-of-the-world to her when she was eighteen. 

“Beatrice,” she said, her voice trembling. 

"You are my American Beauty Rose," he told her, and refused to take the quarter from her for the Nescafe.

She was petite, fine-boned, unlike his zaftig Russian girlfriends. “On our first date, your father hugged me so hard my ribs felt bruised,” she said, laughing. “And he used to pick me up in his arms and carry me over puddles,” she’d added, her hand fluttering at her heart.  

But over the years, my father succumbed to the sorrow and guilt of surviving the pogrom in Berdychev that his four brothers hadn’t. He no longer felt as if he deserved going to the movies with my mother, or taking her dancing at Roseland, or even taking a walk with her hand-in-hand on the boardwalk. Six days a week, sometimes seven, he left the house while it was still dark and came home at 8:30 or 9 at night, so exhausted that he fell asleep at the table, his dental bridge hanging from his mouth. He saw daylight mostly through his smeary storefront window.

My mother didn’t understand that she couldn’t lure my father out of depression by making herself look as young as when he first saw her. She began living on Metrecal, either the canned liquid diet drink or their cookies that were dry as dog treats until she dipped them in black coffee. To help curb her appetite, she upped her Marlboros to two packs a day and got amphetamines from our local doctor. “My nerves are jumping inside me,” she complained to him, so he gave her Valium. 

When I was fifteen, it was 1964, the dawning of the sexual revolution. In my family, the only one who had practiced free love was my father’s “Commie” cousin Rose Pinsky who summered at nudist camps. But my starving mother became, in her menopausal years, lusty, brash, and hard-up. She started wearing miniskirts, never mind her varicose veins. 

One day when she and I were shopping in Cedarhurst, an eight-minute drive from our neighborhood, a boy approached me. Back then, I was a sapling oozing honey, and the boys, they were bees. He was tall, his shoulders made mightier by his football jacket. The sun glinted on his black hair. His brown eyes had lashes that were longer than any boy’s had a right to be. 

He nodded politely at my mother, then asked my name and what school I went to. 

I had just about answered when my mother edged herself between us. She batted her eyelashes at him and began to babble, her words bubbles that burst against my eardrums. Then she shimmied her shoulders and hips like the mating dance of a desperate bird.  

The sidewalk refused to open up beneath me. The boy backed away and crossed the street. 

After a few more incidents like this, I began to sneak around with boys, meeting them in dark movie theaters as if I were a married woman having trysts. We’d smooch in the balcony where matrons didn’t shine their flashlights. As angry as I was with my mother, I couldn’t help feeling sorry for her at home, in front of our Zenith console, my father snoring in the bedroom. 

I used to hate it as a kid when I saw them giving each other smoky looks. Especially revolting to me were the nights she wore her blue rayon kimono printed with love birds and cherry blossoms, and I’d come downstairs late to get a glass of water and find her sitting sidesaddle on his lap at our breakfast nook. Or the times I caught my father patting my mother’s behind on their way to the bedroom. But I began to wish this for her and for him. 

A few days before I was to be married, I guess feeling anxious for my own future, I asked my mother, “When men get older, do they still want to have sex?”

Her eyelids got heavy. Her blue eyes seemed to sink deeper into their sockets. “Yes, if they don’t work themselves to death,” she said with a sigh.  

Her pain was so naked that I had to look away. I tried to forget it in order to go on with my own life, but it haunted me. Whenever my husband reached for me or I for him, I thought of that moment with my mother and clung to him harder.  

 

My father died when I was twenty-eight, a few months short of his retirement, as if the threat of stopping work was what killed him. By then my mother’s brain had begun to deteriorate from taking tranquilizers, diet pills, sleeping pills, and later on, her nightly scotch.

The last time I visited her at her apartment before she had to go into a nursing home, she didn’t answer her doorbell ring after ring. Panicked, I began banging on her door, shouting, “Ma, Ma.”

When she finally opened it, she was wearing her kimono, now coffee-stained, and her lipstick was smeary. I smelled her signature Evening in Paris. I wondered if she’d met a man.

“Is someone there with you?” I asked.

“I’m sorry I can’t let you in right now,” she said, blushing and lowering her eyelids. “Herman’s here and…well, you know how it is.”

I did. I had my husband at home, waiting for me, and I couldn't wait to get to him. And my mother had her middleweight boxer back and she was once again his American Beauty Rose.


Rochelle Jewel Shapiro’s novel, Miriam The Medium (Simon & Schuster), was nominated for the Harold U. Ribelow Award. Kaylee’s Ghost, her second novel, was an Indie finalist. She’s published essays in NYT (Lives) and Newsweek, and in many anthologies. Her short stories, poetry, and essays have appeared or are many literary magazines such as The Alembic, Amoskeag, California Quarterly (CQ), The Cape Rock, The Coe Review, Compass Rose, Controlled Burn, Front Range Review, The Griffin, Harpur Palate, Inkwell Magazine, The Iowa Review, Los Angeles Review, The MacGuffin, Memoir Journal, Moment, Negative Capability, Pearl, Pembroke, Pennsylvania English, Peregrine, Ragged Sky Press, Rio Grande Review, RiverSedge, Schuylkill Valley Journal Of the Arts, The South Carolina Review, Stand, Studio One, and Thema. Her essay, Eulogy for My Mother won the Branden Memorial Literary Award from Negative Capability. She teaches writing at UCLA Extension. https://rochellejshapiro.com @rjshapiro