In this exclusive excerpt from her poignant new memoir, TREYF, Elissa Altman's mother demonstrates over brunch with her in-laws that being difficult isn't the same thing as being wrong.
Your parents speak in tongues, my mother says to my father, as we pull into an empty parking space in front of my grandparents’ building.
It’s a late Sunday morning in December 1974; I am 11. And like every late Sunday morning, we have just finished a breakfast of bacon and eggs and the diet white bread that my mother incinerates in the toaster while my father mans the frying pan, which spits angry, sizzling pork fat at him, spattering his wrists with the vengeance of his forefathers. He shrieks with fury at no one in particular and throws the hot skillet into the sink, where he blasts it with cold water and a mushroom cloud of vaporized grease explodes into the air.
We drive an hour out from Forest Hills, rattling along the Brooklyn-Queens Expressway and over the rusting Kosciuszko Bridge toward Coney Island, a part of Brooklyn that my father calls The Motherland. I stare out the window at the packed and heaving cemeteries of Queens morphing into manufacturing plants and industrial complexes; I watch as the putrid chlorophyll-green canals snake below us and empty into the Gowanus, their surfaces slicked with a soapy blue rainbow of chemicals, and when I see a tall gas stack with a live blue flame rising from the dank water as if from the bowels of hell, I fling myself onto the musty floor mats of the car and howl in hysterical, pyrophobic terror. My parents ignore me—this Pavlovian response (fire; terror) happens every Sunday—and my father reaches below the heavy front bench seat and hauls it forward so that when I dive to the floor, I have room to huddle for the rest of the journey.
We ride in silence, my mother’s white fox coat falling off her shoulders to the crooks of her elbows, like an old-time movie starlet in the Rose Parade. She chain-smokes cigarette after cigarette, stubbing them out in the passenger door ashtray until we arrive at 602 Avenue T. My father is seconds away from turning off the ignition when my mother leans forward and pops her new Melba Moore tape into the eight track, fast-forwards it to “Time and Love,” and cranks up the volume. She tosses her head back, closes her eyes, and sings at the top of her lungs, like she’s on stage at Carnegie Hall. She’s a belter—a loud, confident Ethel Merman-ish singer who spent a season on national television and had her own show at the Copacabana in the late 1950s, her volume belying her tiny stature. She and Merman, it turned out, shared both a vocal coach and a decibel level. There’s music everywhere, all the time: There’s Peggy Lee playing on my father’s Garrard turntable when I come home from school, Cass Elliot on The Tonight Show while I’m trying to fall asleep across the hall from their bedroom, and today, Melba Moore on the eight-track in my father’s Buick.
“Let’s GO—” my father shouts to her over the music, shutting off the engine. He gets out of the car, opens the front passenger door, and waits for her on the sidewalk while I stand behind him, holding my guitar case in one hand and a slim green-and-red book titled Classic Tunes of Christmas Cheer in the other.
“I don’t want to see them anymore,” she says, holding her hand out for the car keys.
“But my mother made lunch,” he says. Narrow cords of blue vein pop up in his neck.
“Whatever she’s making,” my mother answers, “I don’t want any.”
She looks out the windshield, straight ahead, at the car parked in front of us. My father gives her the keys; she doesn’t know how to drive, but it’s bitterly cold and she’ll freeze sitting in an unheated car, even in her fur coat.
My mother’s sudden display of independence lands like a guided missile at the feet of its intended target; she has forced my father to choose between seeing his aging parents from the old country, or leaving them behind and taking her where she wants to go, back to the new, modern world, where she is woman, hear her roar.
“Please come upstairs, Ma,” I whine. “It’s Christmas!”
“We’re not Christians,” my mother says, staring out the window. “I’ll wait here. You go with Daddy.”
My father grabs the sleeve of my new fluffy gray rabbit coat and ushers me up the steps into the lobby, where the gamey odor of schmaltz wraps around me like a boa constrictor as we step onto the elevator and head upstairs.
Grandpa opens the door and looks past us and down the empty hallway.
“So vhere is she?” he says.
“Not hungry,” my father answers.
We sit in the darkened living room before lunch and my grandparents mumble to my father in Yiddish.
“Perform for Grandma and Grandpa,” my father commands. I unzip my vinyl guitar case and tune it up while I pick out familiar words from their conversation: kinder and a broch and nishtikeit and tsuris and chaleria. The baby. A curse. A nobody. Trouble. Evil woman.
I pluck a full, six-string E chord and my father and grandparents look up.
“Play us a song, sveetheart,” Grandpa says and I open my music book to my new favorite Christmas carol and I begin to strum.
“You have to sing it,” my father says, “or we won’t know what you’re playing.”
I blush; I say no.
My mother is the singer. I can’t sing. I don’t sing. I won’t sing. They’ll compare me to her; they’ll laugh.
“SING it, dammit,” my father shouts, and so I begin, playing the introduction before I sing with a shaking voice,
God rest ye merry gentlemen
Let nothing you dismay;
Remember Christ our Savior
Was born upon this day …
My grandmother stands, takes the guitar from me, rests it on a chair, and steers me to the kitchen table, which is set for five. She picks up one of the place settings and dumps it—napkin, silverware, and all—into the sink.
She pads over to the walnut china cabinet where she keeps her good tea set and pulls out a plate. I hear her bang a glass container on the drain board, and then a thwack. She spoons something out onto the plate, tapping and scraping.
My grandmother reaches over me and puts down a small, gold-rimmed plate dotted with magenta petunias, upon which is perched an entire brain the size of my father’s fist. She touches my shoulder; she hands me a salad fork.
I look down at the brain; it looks back, with its cool gray fissures and swirls, its light pink blood spots shimmering in the afternoon sun streaming in through the window, past the fire escape.
“Whatever she’s serving,” my mother had said, “I don’t want it.”
My mother knew.
She knew that we would all sit down to lunch, and on this delicate Austrian china that was dragged over on the boat from Czernowitz with her mother’s candlesticks, my grandmother would feed us whole boiled brains the day after we have seen Young Frankenstein at the Ziegfield, and there were brains in glass jars and a man with a moving hunchback and bulging eyes.
“The baby doesn’t eat brains yet,” my father announces, walking into the kitchen with my grandfather.
My father’s hands leave invisible contrails of the bacon we had for breakfast as he grabs the plate out from under my stare and carries it to the drain board. My grandmother curls her lip in irritation at her youngest grandchild’s obvious bad manners, probably learned at home. She produces bowls of chicken soup, followed by cold balik fish covered in a thin layer of tan gelatin, powdered hot cocoa pour over kosher marshmallows, and thimble-size shot glasses of Schnapps.
My mother is sound asleep in the front seat when my father and I emerge through the lobby doors and down to the sidewalk; her full pack of Virginia Slims has been smoked and the butts are smoldering in the ashtray next to her.
The car battery is dead.
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