Tuesday, April 01, 2008
DANCE ON PAPER: Missing Self
By Marti Zuckrowv
Forty years ago, when my oldest daughter was a few months old, I had my two front teeth pulled. Years of braces, neglect, poor nutrition due to the anorexic rules that I lived by, and the genes I inherited from my mother, finally took their toll and rotted the pearly whites I'd been lucky to keep for as long as I had.
It was 1967. I remember moving from Brooklyn to the Bronx and meeting my new neighbors, baby-in-tow, welfare check in my purse, barking puppy at my side, and missing my two front teeth. I scrambled up the five flights of stairs to our new apartment and hid there for most of that first week. I was desperately waiting to receive the temporary partial dental plate that Medical was willing to pay for; I was desperate to look ACCEPTABLE.
"This is not me!" I wanted to shout from through the peek hole in my door. "I don't really look like this. I'm smart, I'm a dancer, I read good books, and I'm not a creep."
All that was missing was my two front teeth, yet, the person I perceived myself to be felt invisible. The gaping hole in my mouth replaced me. I felt like an ugly, toothless, welfare mother who ought to be stoned.
I felt such shame! Was this shame there all along just waiting to burst like a boil, ready to leak out and envelope me in self-disgust?
I'd always been ashamed of my mother, whose long weekdays were spent sitting before a sewing machine in a coat factory. I'd wanted her to be a stay-at-home, milk-and- cookies mom. I was ashamed of her thick Russian accent and her stocky peasant body. I'd wanted her to look like a movie star. I was ashamed of the orthopedic shoes she wore on her gnarled feet (she'd had rickets as a child due to malnutrition).
I was especially ashamed of her Saturday ritual; donning a faded housedress and tying a schmate around her hair. (I wanted her to lounge on the couch dressed in the elegant leisurewear I saw in department store windows.) She never failed to wear her false teeth as she set out to slave away the day. It was a given: never be seen toothless, as it was a sign of ignorance and poverty, two things she fought against until the day she took her own life.
She'd spend most of the day on her hands and knees, dragging a pail of soapy water behind her and washing the floors with rags. She would scrub the bathroom until her hands hurt, then wipe down the windows and walls with a solution that caused her eyes to tear. Did she think she was dirty?
Very likely. My mother was 12 when she first got her period. She was living in Russia with her 4 surviving older brothers at the time. (She was the 18th and last child). The brothers, knowing little about menstruation but enough to know that their sister could now become pregnant, tied her to the bed for five days, bringing her rags for the blood and food and water until the bleeding stopped.
Was being a female dirty? Was she bad because she was bleeding? With no mother, sister, or aunt to reassure her that this was "Normal," and "a good thing", what was she to think? Did she pass her shame onto me?
I'd been quite self destructive in the past. I'd perfected starving myself whenever life got tough, I'd swallowed a bottle of pills and had my stomach pumped. I'd had several abortions before I turned 17, one of my boyfriends was a junkie, I think you get the picture. But once I got married at 22, and had a baby at 23, I was convinced those days were behind me. I had a spice rack, and matching mugs. I'd cooked a turkey. I was a grown up, a mother, a wife, a good, upstanding, "NORMAL' person. So what if I got funny looks from the supermarket clerk when I paid with food stamps. So what if I was on welfare. I liked myself, so I thought.
Losing my two front teeth hurled me face to face with feelings I had been running away from for much of my life. Hours at the shrink's office my parents forced me to go (with the threat of reform school if I refused) didn't unveil this deep seeded shame.
It's funny how events that seem so unrelated can trigger strong emotions, how we can connect the dots and unleash buried feelings and early memories. You just never know what will pop up when. Being alive is quite the adventure, isn't it?
MyStoryLives is proud to have Dance on Paper columnist Marti Zuckrowv amongst its contributors. Zuckrowv hails from California.