Breaking in Six Degrees
“I read somewhere that everybody on this planet is separated by only six other people. Six degrees of separation between us and everyone else on this planet.”
John Guare, Six Degrees of Separation
The First Degree
I pull in closer to smell the aftershave on the father’s collar, rounding this same corner for the fifth time today. My bike wheels give a squeak, and I jolt back to the pavement because I’m afraid they’ll notice I don’t actually belong—not here, not to their picnic. Lately I’ve found myself wanting a refresher course in the art of family making. A mother, a father, a sibling, or two? A grandmother, she knits. A grandfather, he’s quiet, but the aunt (ant or ahnt) is far too rowdy. Uncles come and go, recover and remarry, such that there are branches and branches and branches of cousins.
Lineage: a portfolio of everything you didn’t choose to be. Written in blood, may cause side effects of sweat and tears. Surfaces at inopportune times, like the moment before a first date when your mother’s smile lines are suddenly staring back at you from the bathroom mirror. Or when that date orders his matzoh ball soup, forcing you to reconsider your cheesy bacon sandwich in terms of how likely it is that he’d ask you on a second date and how much you actually want him to. You thought you were showing off some comedic flair with those e-mailed stories about your stereotypical Jewish mother, he thought you were getting personal with his past. Maybe we should just be friends. I don’t think you understand. I might be the “you haven’t eaten enough,” the Chinese food on Christmas day, and the prominent nose, but don’t let it fool you. What am I? I’m sure as hell not them.
The Second Degree
An ode, drowned in coffee
From the thunderclouds.
An alliterative literacy guilty
Of a one night stand in pretension:
Pretense, after he hit up
The girl at the library
With the academic stick lodged
In her misunderstood
Assertions. And with that
Literation, they oblitigated
Any tents that tried
To preify in their presence.
Even with the heat
Skimmed off, the fidgets
Flitted in wide-load, full-fat
Qualifiers, of which nobody
Necessitated any partakeage.
Her phonomania gave way to
Fixation, fixing for a fixative
That could preserve
The night sky in a millisecondary
The Third Degree
Someone remind me when I signed on as head dietitian for the household. While you’re at it, hand me a paycheck.
“So this stuff’s better than, like, rice? I can’t have rice, right? What makes it different? Less calories?” She pulls the spoon out of the pot with disdain.
“More protein, Mom. That, and fewer simple carbohydrates. It keeps you fu--”
“I guess I’m allergic to rice, now.”
“No, it’s just about making choices, Mom. Weigh them out--brown is better than white, vegetables are better than pasta. You know all this. We just haven’t been thinking very hard about our choices lately.”
“I can’t have any bread. It makes me fat.” She addresses the houseplant that sits next to me. She does that when I refuse to give her hard and fast rules.
We did a nutritional overhaul this summer in the interest of warding off hereditary heart disease, improving our energy levels, and, for Mom, feeling attractive enough to use an online dating site. The last two failed long-term relationships came to us courtesy of the world wide web as well, but to her, there’s no sense letting a few bad eggs ruin the whole dozen. They gave us what they could, those bad eggs. Not entirely bad. Plus, we’ll make better choices this time.
“None for me, I still want to lose weight,” she says to my offering of half a nectarine. For three weeks, we cut all forms of sugar from our diet, which was a quick way to prepare ourselves for our new lifestyle and to expedite our weight-loss.
“Fruit is healthy for you, Mom. You won’t lose more without it anymore. It’s time to add it back.”
“Some fruits are better than others. Berries, apples, peaches. I wouldn’t go for bananas yet because they’ll spike your blood sugar levels. Weigh your choices.”
“You’re sure I’ll still lose?” her eyes are glued to the forbidden fruit.
“With this, yes. With cake? No.”
Mom knows seasons. Spring for growth, summer for celebration, and before you’re prepared it’s autumn, when you settle into your routine that steers you steadily closer to the dormancy of winter. It’s always sad when summer ends, except when you’re looking forward to the beginning of the next cycle. Mom knows when to expect the plants to die. She knows when to stop hoping that a relationship will survive the winter. What she’s not good at is waiting for spring.
“It’s still bread, but it’s not made of flour. It has more fiber because it’s sprouted.”
“It’s dry.” Picking the vegetables out of her sandwich, she exiles the bread to the side of her plate.
“I’m sorry you don’t like it. We can try something else next time. There are other options.”
“She always says that. She’s trying to make me fat.” The houseplant drops a withered leaf in agreement.
The Fourth Degree
One day, you’ll know all too well what it feels like to be a disappointment.
Let’s be honest. There will be more than one day.
Your mother (she’ll be a mother, then, not a Mama)
Will catch your darting eyes with her own,
And stare straight into your guilty conscience.
That’s when you get to admit to being
Late, or rude, or reckless, any combination of the above,
Or just plain wrong.
I’m giving you a jar, sealed up and ready to save for that day--
Those couple of days.
Here’s what it has:
A moment, tucked in between gratuitous baby shoes and dresses,
To help you slow down when you feel as though
You’re never going to contribute enough
To this world.
One singular moment, and believe me, it was hard to stuff in this jar,
To remind you that human beings can’t be ranked by their
Efficacy, that you don’t need to waste time
Trying to define “success.”
If you’re holding out for a bottled momentous occasion,
You should hunt another treasure--I’m warning you now
That this one
Has quite the ordinary facade.
You looked back, toothless and innocent,
Gurgled a few choice vowels,
And pulled yourself up to stand next to the coffee table.
I’m not sure a fan club anywhere has ever been so enthused.
With tears streaming down all of our
Four faces—your mama, my mama, and us girls—we
Kissed your head and gave (hopefully)
Reassuring pats to your exhausted limbs,
Preparing for the inevitable downfall,
A crusade in which we knew you would be triumphant.
The Fifth Degree
I believed in being unruly ever since I could read. To believe and to participate are two separate spheres, you know. Although the voice of a young Anne Frank spoke to me on a profound level, I didn’t consider myself a rabble-rouser. I would never dance on the furniture or speak smartly to an elder. I wouldn’t have dreamed of documenting negative feelings in writing; I felt guilty and superstitious about every ounce of conviction that was underneath the layers of sweet girl, quiet girl, never-lets-out-a-peep-of-insubordination girl.
Don’t get me wrong, I knew the difference between good and evil. I had standards, but at the top of it all, for me, was politeness. To the extent that a stranger who crushed the bones of my foot would receive profuse apologies: “I am so sorry for walking underneath your shoes, ma’am.” After devouring Frank’s diary, Number the Stars, The U.S. Holocaust Memorial Museum, plays, research papers, photographs, I became convinced that I would not have survived the Holocaust.
Maybe it’s a crisis that every successive generation of Jewish people will go through…what if I had been born 50 years earlier? What if? Would I have resigned myself to the discrimination? Would I have tolerated torture? Worse, would I have allowed myself to be convinced that I was guilty?
The idols of my childhood had common traits. They did not stand back and allow mistaken people to tread on their integrity. Meip Geis did not hang her head and apologize to the Frank family when they requested her aid. Margot Frank did not succumb to illness in the annex. Otto Frank did not let the voice of his daughter go unheard.
And Anne. Anne created. Anne listened. She felt and she knew. Pages. Words. “I still believe, in spite of everything, that people are truly good at heart.” Anne survived so long because those around her believed, and because she believed, in fighting for morality. To do nothing is to be part of the problem: of at least that much, I’m sure.
The Sixth Degree
If you find
A line of mine,
I’d prefer if you’d tie it
In the interest of
You can have some of this
If you really want it,
But don’t get upset
When you come down with
A case of the
Creates, or even the
Blues. Cry to someone
Else about your new found
Handicap in numbers,
Because you took that too
With the blood.
I’m labeling this Red Cross certified
Transfusion as one degree:
An anonymous link
In my tree of negotiable