I didn’t start out being difficult.
In fact, if love were a guarantee that there would never be anything but love and safety and always feeling whole and enough, I would 100 percent have never felt un-loveable. Ever.
Because, before I was born, even, my parents’ love for me was measureless. Unbounded. Without end.
I have evidence.
My mother is pregnant. Me inside her belly. soft and warm, waiting, her on the outside, beaming. She is absolutely gorgeous in her black button downed maternity wrap-around pencil skirt. Loose, but not baggy.
She looks bomb.
Especially for a pregnant woman.
Her face is tanned. Her dark hair is upswept into a beehive. Perfect. Like the cake-topper to her sweet heart-shaped face. My parents are in their modest first apartment situated in the corner on the second floor of an apartment complex in Cedar Rapids, Iowa, called Park Town Place. It’s April. Not yet summer, but warm enough.
She is wearing a white short-sleeved pullover maternity smock top. Sailor cut. Adorable. The wide collar is white with black trim made up of little x’s and o’s that look hand embroidered. Little hugs lining her neck. The white bow is loosely tied, barely sweeping the top of the curve of her generous belly. The bow, an exquisite feature of the smock top, mostly because it accentuates her neck. My grandma, Sara, her mom, said her neck, and then mine, was swan-like. I think that’s a compliment.
We are perfect.
It’s 1966 and my dad has documented each stage of this pregnancy by making a series of short films. Movies. Starring me. And mom. There is no sound, of course, so instead there are handwritten 8×10 white cards cleverly marking time. Telling the story. Black ink. One says,
“I was a teenage bride but now I’m 20,” My mom blushes. She looks at the card, turning it up towards her eyes.
“Baby No Name – 3 months. Says the next one.
“And counting,” says the next.
My mom is smiling in each frame. Her dark eyebrows arched. Like Natalie Wood. Accentuating her green- brown eyes. There is such synergy in all of the features of my mother’s face. Together they give flight to the tenderness that is behind her effervescent smile. There is nothing here to see but joy. Love. She giggles, you can’t hear it but you can feel it.
She turns now to give a side view. Her smile lengthens. Her petite hands stop briefly to rest on her belly. On me. To give me a love pat. She lowers her hands, pulling the smock top against her hip bones tightly. She looks at the camera. At my dad. She is proud. She is pregnant. She is T-3.
There is more evidence.
Me coming home from Mercy Hospital on June 17 wrapped in a yellow and white blanket, hand knitted by my grandma. Her name is Hilda. I would grow up to call her Baba. The blanket is soft and there are pieces of yellow and white fringe – weightless pieces of loosely twisted fibers – strands of yarn – that seem to float over my mother’s hands as she holds me tightly. She is a true beauty even in the wheelchair. My grandma waves at the camera. My mother waves. The summer wind is blowing gently.
Frame upon frame capturing moments in which I am deeply loved.
Moments of silent bliss.
I am three months old.
It’s not just my mother who loves me deeply.
My dad loves me too. He is lying alone in the bed he shares with my mother, in the same apartment in Park Town Place. There is a black dresser near the bed. The walls are white. He is on his back, wearing blue or maybe greyish pajamas, the kind men used to wear to sleep in back in the 60’s. The pillow is propped up in a half scrunch against the black headboard so that he can put his head on the pillow and look into my eyes. The sheets are stark. Simple. He is tall. 6’4 and he holds me with his big hands – I am so very itsy bitsy – putting me gently onto his chest. He is enamored. He looks now at the camera, at my mother, who must be holding it this time. His love is so big and I am so small.
It’s September. We are at Temple Judah. It’s very hot. I know this because I see the Aunts and the Uncles off camera fanning themselves with their hands. There is no air conditioning in Temple Judah. But still, they are celebrating. They are celebrating me. In the social hall at the Temple where there is grey tile mottled with nearly imperceptible veins of red and white and brown. And brown bendy walls, accordions, that can magically make the room get bigger. Or smaller. The tables are lined with white tablecloths. Silver candlesticks. White candles. A punchbowl. Cake. Aunt Gladys. Aunt Marilyn. Uncle Seymor. Mr. and Mrs. Smulekoff. All the aunts and uncles and grandparents and friends are there. They are holding rented wine glasses. Smoking. Their cigarettes peek out from their bony fingers as they gesture frantically to Punctuate. Their. Words.
Everyone is laughing. It is my Baby Naming Ceremony, Reform Judaism’s way of celebrating the birth of a daughter and her entry into the covenant of the Jewish people. Each time the camera catches the eye of an aunt or an uncle or a grandparent or a friend, she or he looks into the camera and giggles. It’s as if the camera – my dad – has just caught him or her in that singular spectacular moment of joy that occurs upon hearing someone’s good news. They Smile. Speak into the silence. Toast my dad who is holding the camera. I am important. I am loved.
When my brother is born it is exciting. I am three. He is warm. Small. I am now the big sister. We live in a bigger house. Things are going well. There is plenty of room for both of us.
I am five, possibly six. My brother, Scott, who my dad has now assigned the official nickname, “Binkers”, is two or three. Each Christmas three generations of aunts, uncles, and cousins gather at my Aunt Pat’s house, frenzied and jubilant. Readied for Jewish Christmas on Red Fox Road. As my dad’s, dad, Morris was the second oldest of six children whose parents first came to New York, and then Cedar Rapids in the late 1800’s from Russia, Morris was last to marry at the age of 40. Thus my dad was the youngest cousin of his generation . And thus, my brother and I were adored, also being the youngest of our generation by nearly a decade.
Cars lined the icy driveway, my brother and I expectantly following my mother into the split level house, her hands full with covered casserole dishes. My brother being helped up the two small steps, through the screen door, being led downstairs into the basement “present room” by my dad.
“He looks like Buddy Hackett.” Ten year old cousin Kathy would say, reaching over to squeeze his cheeks as my brother sat by my side on the cold tile floor. The walls lined in brown paneling, Mikey. Joey. Diane, our cousins, sitting by our sides.
“The comedian, Herman,.” Aunt Barbara would say, her voice low, thickened, dried to a particular hoarseness from years of smoking cigarettes.
“Buddy. Hacket. Herman. “ she looks away from us, towards her husband. Towards Herman.
“Hackett,” she would repeat again louder this time, reminding Uncle Herman and the other elder aunts and uncles lining the walls, watching, seeing their brows furrow trying to reconcile the similarities between a chubby-cheeked Jewish American comedian and my three year old brother, his own chubby little cheeks the centerpiece to his little checkered overalls, white onesie, brown tossled toddler hair.
The present room is lined, floor to ceiling with green, red and white papered boxes. Ribbons. Bows. It didn’t matter on those Christmas days that we were one of the biggest Jewish families in Cedar Rapids. That my uncle was a founding member of our synagogue, Temple Judah. We made up for it lighting the Chanukah menorah. Serving Brisket for dinner. My older cousins joyfully helping us unwrap gifts with handwritten tags on which our names were scrawled.
“Di Di,” lift the bow. Read the tag, “ 12 year old Joey would say to his bigger sister.
We would sit, my brother and I, waiting to see which ones belonged to us.
I sit in my white and red speckled dress next to Kathy who is eight years my senior. She is my favorite. I am hers. I am wearing shiny black shoes. My hair is in pigtails. The bows in my hair are red. Of course they are, it is Christmas.
The presents with my name on them are spectacular. I open them, my heart filled.
“Look. Look.” I say with my glimmering green-brown eyes to both everyone and yet to no one in particular, as I hold up each gift.
This is love.
We are Cedar Rapids rich. We are happy. I am loved.
When I am older and my parents tell me I’m difficult, I will wonder if I was ever loveable. Or worthy. Or enough. When I am cast aside by boys and then by men, when I am filled with self- loathing and fear, I will forget that I was once safe in my mother’s beautiful belly. I will forget that I am loved. That I was part of this family.
I will forget the time when there is no such thing as Marni, the difficult, un-loveable teenager. The one who won’t speak to her mother for 30 days straight. Or, lie. The one who they wish they could send to boarding school if only they wouldn’t miss her so very much.