Outside looking on

by tamarjacobson

Have I always been on the outside looking on?

I remember sitting in the living room with my father and his wife. They were speaking Ladino and I did not understand one word. Well, perhaps a word or two here and there: "cierra la puerta?" She sat in a blue chair in the corner of the living room and puffed on her cigarette, holding it between her fingers in a slim, black holder. I remember she wore gloves when we drove into town to have tea and "a thousand leaves" cakes at Haddon & Sly. I was mostly very quiet. I sat as still as I could so as not to be noticed. I was terrified of doing anything at all in case it was wrong. For I had heard that she had a very large temper. When my father brought me home for the weekend, she would meet me at the door and lead me directly to the bathroom to wash off all the dirt from my mother's house. "Remember to scrub your knees and neck," she would say.

I wrote about some of this back in 2009:

I would sit quietly watching my step-mother closely as she dressed herself with great care, slipping hairpins into the neat roll she created around the bottom edge of her blue-silver tinted hair. After donning her beige colored gloves, we would drive off together into the town for our outing. I cannot remember what we did at Haddon & Sly except for the times we would visit the store's tea-room for tea and cakes – and, usually Mille-feuille was among them. I would sit at the table politely making sure to be on my very best behavior. 
I remember feeling almost as if I was being initiated into some type of aristocratic, sophisticated world meant for other people – everyone else, that is, except me. It was like some kind of lucky fluke that I was even allowed to participate in it for a brief moment. I understood that I would have to keep very quiet, not fidget or make any unnecessary movement in my seat, and eat my cake ever so carefully until each crumb was cleaned off the plate and into my hungry little mouth. I probably could have eaten sixteen of them one after another. They were so delicate and petite, and so completely delicious – expert flaky pastry, creamy custard filling and elegant powdered sugar frosting the top. I was always so proud not to allow one tiniest drop of the powdered sugar to fall onto the table cloth, or more importantly, onto my clothes. My step-mother would have hated that, and I feared her wrath considerably.

I only visited their home for about five years until I was ten years old or so. After that my father told me something had happened and he was no longer allowed to take me there. He never told me the reason why. Perhaps he thought I was too young to understand, or maybe he did not want to hurt me. Nevertheless, naturally, as a child I assumed and imagined it was because of something I said or did. He and I would have to visit in the park, drive out on outings or go to the movies – it felt like meeting a clandestine lover or something.

It would be years until I could visit him in his own home again.

I came from the outside – another life – and she allowed me to intrude for awhile.