American Girl

BY KATHY PERUTZ

Riding on my father’s shoulders, a fat little curlytop of three, I waved at the man in the convertible moving towards us on Queens Boulevard as the crowd roared and the President waved back at me.  FDR, I could tell, liked me very much.

I don’t remember his death or his succession by Harry Truman, only that shining moment in a past so ancient to me now it might have happened in the days of heraldry or in a  poem of Jacques Villon, emerging from the Middle Ages: Où sont les Neiges d’antan? where are the snows of yesteryear?

That’s the way with memories, I find: fat beads like pills in capsule form to be swallowed whole, without reference to anything else.  Memory, to me, never has a narrative, not an ongoing story but simply a clip taken from context, or a slide projected on the mind’s screen, to fade and return, but not in any clear sequence, not like a film.  Which is why I can’t write a true memoir, and don’t believe anyone can.

Franklin Roosevelt was my first president.  My parents had emigrated from Central Europe in 1938 after the Nazis entered Austria.  At first they lived in a rooming house in Manhattan – that is, mainly my mother did, with her friend Kitty, an actress from Vienna, a comedienne whose specialty was simply laughter, unending, until everyone in the club was laughing with her as young girls laugh, infectious, contagious, about nothing at all.  And after all, what was there to laugh about?

The two young women shared the apartment, my father then back in Prague (where my parents had lived) trying to get relatives out at the last minute.  When I was born, we moved to a semi-detached house in Forest Hills, Queens, with a German-speaking grandfather belonging to the other half.  That, and the rocking chair on their porch, is all I remember of the house, though later I learned that we lived very close to the famous tennis courts, and sometimes went to the Forest Hills Inn for orange juice.

When I was about three (that’s the age I see myself astride my tall father’s not very broad shoulders), we moved to nearby Kew Gardens, to a semi or mock Tudor (it was in fact both semi and mock in the way a turtleneck sweater that’s not really a turtleneck is called mock or partial or some other qualifying adjective that tells you it’s not the real stuff), a white house with dark red shutters, a Victory garden on the side where the lilac trees grew and beyond them, further back, bushes of mountain laurel with their blossoms like stars. In the backyard itself, I had a small log cabin just like Abe Lincoln’s (or so I believed), where I used to serve my dolls tea, and a large sandbox which was later removed, but the earth beneath it had been made sterile, and in the end the sand was replaced by pebbles, pretty little stones through which small steams formed whenever it rained, and sometimes I floated chocolate candy on the waters, calling to the younger kids to come see the miracle.

They believed me.  I was the oldest kid on the block and so I ran it, my sense of leadership coming to me naturally (though otherwise I was quite shy) partly because I was an only child, but mainly I think because my mother’s English was often tentative and she relied on me, the native American, to interpret for her.  When I started going to school, she was never to set foot in the building or to speak to any of my teachers because she was afraid of being mocked for her accent.  Besides, she didn’t understand about “those things,” which included anything to do with officialdom,  So it was (and I report from what I heard later, not what I remembered), that she went to get ration cards for us during the war years.  When asked how tall my father was she, who thought in meters and grams for all her life, replied, “5 feet.”  Herself she put at “4 feet,” and I, she estimated, was “2 feet.”  The woman at the desk looked up then, to see a large hefty child who was probably (as all photographs show) holding tight to the hand of her mother.  “That child is not two feet,” the woman pronounced.  But she must have taken pity on us, because eventually we did get the cards.

By the time my first Presidential election came round, in 1948, I was ready for it.  Thomas E. Dewey, Republican and former Governor of New York, was the clear favorite over the incumbent, Harry S. Truman, the haberdasher from Missouri.  The other candidates with following included Strom Thurmond of the Dixiecrat ticket (Southern Democrats, all of them crackers), and Harry Wallace of the Progressive Party.  My mother voted for Norman Thomas, the Socialist, as she did in every election (he ran for President six times.)

The rest of us were for Truman.  By “us” I mean the block, known as Newbold Place when we moved there and afterwards for some obscure reason, as 82nd Road, although there was already an 82nd Street and an 82nd Avenue.  I was old enough by then to know how to influence people, especially The Duke (originally Dorelle), who lived opposite, was 2 years younger than me and wanted to be a lady wrestler when she grew up. We’d first met up on Kew Gardens Road, when she was about 18 months, my father and I coming back from the florist, where we went every Sunday, and she peering up from her stroller with a chubby angelic face and a head of blond ringlets.  I was smitten, and although she soon cast off her doll-like cuteness, we became a team, me tall, she squat, me the ringleader, Dukey the tough guy.  Her sister Holly, two years younger than herself, was my new animated doll, and I loved to take her into the house and put her on the toilet for a pee.  (That was about the extent of my ability at child-rearing, but I did it with such devotion that I think Holly rarely peed at home, but came running over whenever she felt the urge, to have me ceremonially seat her.)  Both of them were staunchly behind me, backing Truman with all their might, and telling their parents (as I advised them) to be sure to vote for Truman.  The Wolf boys, down the block, also agreed.  And what Billy Blake did was of course of no concern.  She lived next door to me on the left and went to Catholic school.  She was a year younger than The Duke and her name was Mary.  We called her Billy and we couldn’t stand her.  Every now and then we’d make half-hearted attempts to kill her (by making her eat the red berries on the bushes lining the entrance walk to my house, for instance), but she never cooperated and so confirmed our belief that she was stupid.

The main reason for us all to be voting for Truman was not politics or principles. It was that my father said we would move to South America if Dewey won.

I wasn’t allowed to stay up election night, and when I went to bed the outcome wasn’t known. I asked my father to wake me as soon as the results were in.

As it happened, he didn’t have to. That election became the biggest upset in U.S. history. DEWEY DEFEATS TRUMAN appeared in bold headlines in an early edition of the Chicago Tribune, and a famous photograph shows Truman holding it up with a grin on his face.  He had won.  By 11:15 in the morning after the election, Dewey conceded.  We were safe.  We could stay home.

***

I didn’t meet another president until I was in my late teens, and he was only a vice-president then, Richard Milhous Nixon, in Moscow at the time of the Kitchen Debate with Nikita Sergeyevitch Khrushchev.  After that, not again until Bill Clinton, walking out of a meeting at a Chase building on Park Avenue.  A small crowd had gathered and he came up and shook my hand.  He saw through me, those blue eyes of his, and for a moment we were joined.  Then he reached behind me to shake hands with a young man as I very lightly stroked his sleeve and whispered, “Take me with you.”  Then he was gone, and I floated home on clouds to meet the laughter of my husband, who knew my propensity for theatrics.

He is dead now, and my parents long before him. If the man who won the presidency wins the presidency, I might have said to my son and grandchild last year, we’re moving – anyplace but here.  But it was already too late.  America fell to the barbarians, just as my parents’ home had fallen.  From Hitler to Trump: as first-generation American, I loved my country and criticized it fiercely, as we do with our parents.  But now I am orphaned, and my country, the country that was backward in many ways but always striving, and was also magnanimous, kind, humorous – has been hijacked by the very worst kind of hooligans, who bring not only despair but possible annihilation.

One thought on “American Girl”

  1. Kathy, you capture our collective nostalgia for our country. Where has the idea of citizenship gone? When did we decide there wasn’t truth and that hate was our best choice? This is because kids don’t play on the pebbles, floating chocolates to see the miracle. They’re on their phones and life is an image. Our virtual world elected Trump just to see what would happen, just as he may press the button to tell us we’re all ‘fired’. This is a truly dangerous time and the Nazi mentality is already among us. It is ironic that your life has began and is ebbing with civil society. I hope the planet doesn’t fall apart.

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