Night on the Hill

Any time I found trouble as a teenager, which happened frequently, my mother warned me that I would wind up like her older sister, my Aunt Beverly.

“That’s just like Beverly. She used to run around with her wild jazz friends doing who knows what. Look what happened to her after all that craziness. She wound up agoraphobic and housebound, going from psychiatrist to psychiatrist. If you don’t watch yourself, you’ll end up like her,” she said, after I’d been detained by the police for shoplifting with my friend, Linda. I was fifteen and determined to make my own way in the world, separate from my parents’ expectations of me. My mother was just as determined to imprint her ideas upon me about who I should be.

Beautiful, with curly auburn hair and porcelain skin, Aunt Beverly sang in jazz clubs around Los Angeles in the 1940s. She’d won beauty contests because she was talented and pretty. She hoped to make it big as a singer and become famous. Aunt Beverly dreamed that her talent and her good looks would transport her far away from her Russian Jewish immigrant parents, my grandparents, where she spent her days slicing corned beef in Grandpa’s kosher butcher shop. It didn’t work out for Aunt Beverly. She’d planned to tour with Benny Goodman, as his secretary. She never went on tour and gradually descended into depression. Her husband, my Uncle Charles, gave up a career as a musician and worked days at a desk job to support the two of them. They were childless. Aunt Beverly turned into an agoraphobic recluse, housebound for days; her only companion a white poodle named Winston. She existed indoors, cleaning her apartment to spotlessness. After she finished, fearful of germs, she would clean again.

“What a waste of a life. She was so smart. Just too into herself, her looks, and her singing,” said Mom when anything reminded her of Aunt Beverly. And many things did.

Including me. But back in 1966, when I was fifteen, I didn’t know what was so bad about Aunt Beverly. To me she was my beautiful, fragile aunt who loved commenting on the latest outfit I’d sewn for myself.

Occasionally, on Sunday afternoons, Aunt Beverly and Uncle Charles visited for one of our family barbecues. She’d sit at my desk commenting on each outfit I made, her soft hands flitting through my closet, alighting on each dress like two hummingbirds finding their favourite flowers.

“Ooooh, Sherry, I like this one, the dress you made with the Peter Pan collar. Great lines, so slimming,” she said. She fingered her pearl necklace, her fingertips rolling across the smooth surfaces of the pearls.

It dawned on me then that Aunt Beverly took an unusually intense interest in my clothing. She herself always came over well put together in fashionable A-line dresses, earrings and makeup, in contrast to my mother’s casual Sunday barbecue style of capris, a simple blouse, no jewellery, and no makeup other than her dark rose-coloured lipstick.

Later in life I learned that the only times Aunt Beverly left her home were when she came to our family barbecues and when she went to her doctor’s appointments. Otherwise she holed up in her apartment with Winston, the dog. I thought maybe Aunt Beverly dressed so well when she did go out in order to convince herself or others that she was really okay. Or else maybe it was her vanity, as Mom seemed to imply about Beverly. But at age fifteen, I just figured she liked nice clothes and appreciated my style, a welcome thought.

There was something hidden about Aunt Beverly. She sat in my room, her perfect posture complimenting a well made-up face. Delicate painted fingernails drummed across my desk as her eyes widened to inspect each outfit. But I didn’t know her. She was closed like a plant folded inward against inclement weather. In retrospect I realize that I failed to see the darkness underneath her creamy complexion.

That summer after ninth grade, when I was grounded for my shoplifting episode, I decided I was done spending weekend nights watching black and white reruns of The Twilight Zone on TV with only Rod Serling’s monotonous voice to keep me company. One Friday night my friends gathered at the park near our house. I made up my mind that it was time to break out and join them.

“Hey Mom, so what’s up for tonight? Are you and Dad going out?” I asked. I tried to sound casual.

“Yeah. We’re having dinner with Jerry and Florence. Shouldn’t be home too late,” said Mom. “Carl is spending the night at Teddy’s.” Carl was my brother, two years younger than I. Perfect, I thought.

“So I’m on my own,” I said.

“Yeah. We’ll be home around nine-thirty,” said Mom.

“Okay,” I said.

I sewed the seam on the bell-bottom pants I was making. The whir of the sewing machine calmed me, taking my mind off my escape. The clock near my desk finally read six-thirty and Mom and Dad headed out for the evening.

“Bye, Sherry. Great outfit,” said Dad. He waved goodbye.

“Bye,” I said. What did he know about teen fashion? Nothing. Dad’s compliment made me think that he must have felt guilty leaving me home while he and Mom went out. Good, I was glad he felt bad.

As I heard their car pull out of the driveway, my thoughts turned to Gary. He was my new romantic interest and I’d heard he liked me too from my friend Susan who knew all of the gossip in ninth grade. Maybe Gary and I would make out at the park. I hoped so.

I left the house at eight. The air, scented by night-blooming jasmine, matched my mood with its perfume. I hurried up the street to the park. Voices floated in the summer air. Kids hanging out at the baseball diamond laughed and joked. One guy punched another and they raced off yelling. I was free, I thought.

“Hey guys, how’s it goin’?” I asked as I came to the group of ninth graders on the loose.

“Good, how about you?” asked Susan. She pushed her blond hair back and reapplied her frosted lipstick. It was amazing how many times teenaged girls reapplied lipstick, like a nervous tic.

“I’m good. Is Gary here?” I asked. I scanned the park and couldn’t tell in the darkness.

“Paul says he’s coming. Haven’t seen him yet.”

Then, off in the distance, I saw him with his blond curls, his six-foot frame, blue eyes, and suntanned complexion, bounding toward our group. He halted when he landed in front of me.

“Hey, you made a prison break. Watch out – convict, armed and dangerous,” he said. Gary laughed, checking me out. I hoped my eyeliner looked good, having tried out a new shade of black.

“Yeah, right. That’s me.”

I tried to calm my breath and look relaxed. Gary jumped up and down, scratching under his arms in his gorilla imitation.

“Wanna hike up the hill?” he asked, grunting like a gorilla. Clearly the gorilla act was a way to break the ice. It worked. I thought he was hysterical.

“Sure,” I said.

Gary and I walked together to the hillside. My fingers fiddled with the hem of my blouse. I’d been to the park before, but in the night it felt different, more mysterious. I breathed in the familiar smells of the hills, the eucalyptus trees and oil wells off in the distance, the faint smell of dirt, and the salty air that blanketed the hill with moisture from the ocean several miles to the west. We got our footing and climbed.

“Hey, wait for me,” I said.

Gary stopped to wait.

I reached him, out of breath.

He laughed. “What took you so long, slowpoke?”

“Show off,” I said.

Then while I wasn’t looking, Gary swooped in and kissed me on the lips. Luckily, I didn’t have time to think or get nervous or worry if he liked me. It just happened. We kissed on that perch, halfway up the hill, clinging to each other. Gary smelled of some kind of aftershave, so different from my dad’s. I wondered if he thought about the fragrance before he came that night. Did he put it on thinking of me? If only that moment could last forever. I tried to freeze it in my mind, taking in the ocean breeze, the stars and moon, the rocky side of the hill, and the matchbook houses below. This was freedom.

Then, like an arrow piercing the open sky, I heard a voice calling my name. Wait, that couldn’t be right. I heard the voice again, only this time louder.

Sherry,” it said. “Sherry.”

Lost in my Gary reverie, I slowly came out of what felt like a trance. Could this be Mom, up here at the park chasing me? It hit me that this was exactly what was happening. My first response was intense embarrassment. How could she do this to me as I reached the height of my fifteen-year-old life, tucked away, high on the hill with Gary, kissing unselfconsciously, taking in the view, and inhaling the night around me? I wanted to imprint this moment into my brain forever, so that I could retrieve and examine it any time I needed to. Now it would be sullied by the humiliating instant when my mom yelled my name.

“I think that’s my Mom,” I said to Gary.

I pulled my cheek from his and peered down into the darkness below, grateful that it was night. Gary couldn’t see my face turn beet-red. At the bottom of the hill below me, standing at the baseball diamond, I saw a small figure. That was Mom, all right. How could I have lost track of time? She appeared tiny, but sounded strong and commanding. Mom lifted her hands to her face, cupped them around her mouth, and yelled. Behind her, several feet away, I could barely make out my father, standing there motionless.

“Sherry, I know you’re up there. Come down,” she said.

Someone must have told them that I was up there. What traitorous friends.

“Come on,” I said to Gary. “Let’s keep climbing.”

He looked at me.

“Are you sure? She seems really mad.”

“Yeah,” I said. We hiked up a bit further and Mom continued to yell. I wanted out of there. I wished I could fly over the moon and away from her. I had a wild thought about running away, sick and tired of being her daughter. But where would I run to? I was so mad, at her, at myself for losing track of time, at the whole shoplifting incident, at the situation with Gary that had been ruined by Mom’s presence, and at myself for feeling so guilty about disappointing my parents with my behaviour.

As we climbed higher, I began to calm down. Mom was far away now. I glanced up at the stars, loose in the sky. The universe was vast compared to me. If only I could join those stars, so high, so free, so constant, and so unemotional.

I stopped to catch my breath and looked down. Mom seemed small, ant-like, and vulnerable, as she called my name. I shuddered watching her tiny figure off in the distance. Mom wouldn’t want me running away. She would be worried and lonely without me. My breathing slowed. I considered these thoughts.

From my higher vantage point, Mom no longer appeared so formidable or such an authority figure. She wasn’t the police trying to catch me. Mom wasn’t omnipotent. She wasn’t a fortune-teller who could predict that my life would turn out as unhappy as Aunt Beverly’s, even though she’d become a naysayer warning me against becoming Beverly in those years. She was just my mom. And she couldn’t always protect me, I realized. For an instant, disappointment flooded my mind. And then I felt myself letting go of some of that anger that I had held clenched in my heart. I too would be lonely if I ran away. After all, Mom was just trying to do what was right. She was winging this parenting thing as much as I was winging the teenager thing. Mom didn’t have all the answers, a scary thought.

Was I being disloyal for dethroning her as the expert on what was right for me? What sort of daughter betrays her mother like that? I wondered if chaos would ensue without my belief that she was in charge. Then I felt a place open up within me where I didn’t answer to my mother and father, where I was free to make decisions for myself, and I halted in my tracks, safe in the eye of a hurricane. I stood there not wanting to step further away into the night, and not wanting to move closer down the hill toward my parents. I felt free up on that hill, when time stopped.

Tears filled my eyes and spilled down my face. I didn’t know why I was crying. I wiped the tears away hoping that Gary wouldn’t notice, relieved by the cover of night.

“I guess I should go,” I said.

I started down the hill, past the oleander bushes that clung to the hillside. My mind wandered, not wanting to think about facing my parents as I descended. I loved the soft pink flowers of the oleander that peeked out from behind hardy leaves, blossoming in rocky soil. My footing steadied the further down I went. My parents, who tried to tell me who I should be, seemed less intimidating. The anger, the urge to run away, and the desire to steal all loosened their grasp over me. Gary trailed behind, silent for a few moments.

“Wait for me,” said Gary. “I don’t want to get on your Mom’s bad side. Think I’ll head over that way toward the guys and the two of you can talk.”

I got to the bottom of the hill and Mom said, “Let’s go home.”

She was still dressed in her out-to-dinner clothes, black slacks, a flowered blouse, and clip-on earrings. Dad stood behind her. He tapped his shoes on the dirt and said nothing, looking uncomfortable.

“Okay,” I said.

The three of us walked down our street toward home in silence, Mom and I, a respectful distance away from each other but not too far, Dad trailing behind. I remembered when I used to be Mom’s girl, tagging along with her to the hardware store when she built tables for our new living room, watching her sew and pressing her for lessons so that I could make clothes like she did. Couldn’t I be her girl again? The fit between us had changed when I was up on that hill. I ached to be close to her in some kind of way. Regret seeped into my brain. Then I thought of the freedom I felt up there, near the stars and the sky and I knew I couldn’t go backwards. Tears fell again. I looked away and wiped them from my face.

We fell into an awkward silence as we headed down the street to our home. Mom’s steps were slow and deliberate, different from her usual fast-paced gait. Dad walked quietly behind. Night smells of grass, cool asphalt streets, and the ever-present salty ocean air filled my nostrils. The silver moon shone, oblivious to my plight, but reassuring in its presence. Into our house we went, past the hallway, past Mom’s handmade coffee tables that peeked out from the living room.

“I’m tired,” said Mom. “I’m going to bed.”

She was probably tired of worrying, and of loving a child who would run off with little thought about how that would affect others. She was too spent to put those emotions into words, and even if she had I don’t think I would have believed or understood them at age fifteen. Anyway, Mom wasn’t the type to ruminate out loud about her feelings.

Her shoulders slumped. I noticed tiny wrinkles in the skin around her eyes. She looked old. In reality Mom was all of thirty-eight, but old from my clearly limited perspective. I had the feeling that she didn’t want to deal with me. This time I had really done it. She’s never going to speak to me again, I thought. I’ll be frozen out of her life, and exiled to that cold, empty place where disloyal daughters wither away, unloved.

“Me too,” said Dad. “I’m turning in. Night.”

The life seemed drained out of my dad. His face drooped. Even though he was on the periphery of this mother-daughter storm, he appeared weathered by it.

I wandered into my room, changed into my pyjamas and climbed into bed. I couldn’t say what but something propelled me to think forward, toward the day when I would be clear of my muddled brain. After all, I was free. I wasn’t interned like the Japanese Americans in World War II. I wasn’t stuck in a place like Watts with fires raging. I didn’t live in Vietnam where there was fighting every day. The nuclear holocaust hadn’t materialized. I had tomorrow to do better.

I had vague dreams that night of falling, then I’d jerk awake, tangled in my sheets. The next morning was Saturday. Sun shone through my window onto my face. The house was quiet. I slipped into the kitchen to make myself some breakfast. Mom sat at the kitchen table in her blue robe, hands cradling a mug of hot coffee, newspaper opened. She set the paper down.

“How’d you sleep?” she asked.

“Okay,” I said. I popped toast into the toaster and sat down at the table.

“You know, Sherry, I’ve been wondering,” she said slowly. “I don’t get it with you. You’re a smart girl. I can’t understand what you see in those friends of yours.”

“There just my friends, that’s all,” I said. I pulled the toast out of the toaster.

“It’s my sister Beverly all over again,” said Mom. “That Beverly, running around with her jazz-singing friends, wanting to be famous, singing in those grimy clubs until all hours. And me, at age seventeen, driving out into the night to pick up my twenty-three-year-old sister at two in the morning, my mother and father, both a wreck. Look what happened to her. She threw it all away for nothing.”

I saw a faraway look in Mom’s eyes and it was as though I wasn’t there and she was talking to herself.

“Beverly and her big plans, so full of herself. She just had to be a singer, that one, headstrong, stubborn. Nothing else would do. She was too good for anything else, too good to work like I did in Daddy’s butcher shop. So she thought. What she put Daddy through, him dragging her from one psychiatrist to another, her with the agoraphobia. Nothing helped. Beverly just outsmarted those psychiatrists. Then she crawled into that hole of an apartment of hers and gave up on life.” She sighed. “I’m worried you’re headed in a bad direction like her.”

I’d never heard Mom go at Beverly like that. I’d heard bits and pieces of Beverly’s failed singing career and Mom driving her late at night. I always wondered why Beverly couldn’t just drive herself, or why my grandparents didn’t go out and get her. Why Mom, her younger sister by six years? At age seventeen, Mom was two years older than I was that summer after ninth grade, and she was burdened with rescuing an older sister from the wilds of the Los Angeles jazz nightclub scene. Who designated Mom the responsible one of the family? I wondered if Mom was jealous of the attention that Beverly got from Grandpa. I could imagine my grandfather sick with worry, patiently taking her from one psychiatrist to another, in hopes of helping her to cope.

But I wasn’t Aunt Beverly, out carousing in nightclubs, vain, self-absorbed, chasing fame, then housebound, the female Icarus who crashed into agoraphobia and worse. I was just trying to survive in my ninth-grade world.

“Mom,” I said. “I’m not Beverly. I need a life around here.”

I knew this but I don’t think Mom knew. Mom relived her foreboding ruminations about Aunt Beverly with every transgression I made, and I resented that she couldn’t see the difference between us. Yes, I felt sorry for her, having to take care of and worry about an older sister, but I was a teenage girl trying to make my way in the world. Of course I was going to make mistakes and have regrets. That didn’t mean that I would become an emotional cripple like my aunt. I would be okay. I could have told Mom that, the night on the hill, but she wouldn’t have believed me. She was too entrenched in Beverly’s story.

After that night Mom and I fell into some kind of truce. I kept my distance and held my own counsel when I made decisions. My thoughts didn’t automatically rush to anger over my parents’ disapproval of me. I felt sorry for them, having to raise me, a girl who didn’t meet their expectations, who didn’t always do the right thing, who made mistakes and had regrets.

It wasn’t until years later that I understood the depths of Beverly’s despair. I was a freshman at UC Berkeley when I got a phone call.

“Sherry, hi, it’s Mom,” a faint voice said into the phone.

“Hey Mom, what’s up. How’s it going?” I was kinder to my mother now that I had started college and was on my own.

“I have some bad news,” she said. “God, this is too much to have to say.”

“What?” I asked, my heart quickening. “What’s wrong?”

“It’s Beverly … she’s dead.”

“What? How can that be? What happened? She wasn’t sick.”

“Suicide,” said Mom. “Shot herself. In the head… Oh, I’m glad Daddy’s not alive. It would kill him.”

I asked about the funeral, whether I should come home for it. Mom said no, she’d rather I stayed in school. I debated going against her wishes, but in the end I figured Mom knew what she wanted and I should honour that. She helped my Uncle Charles clear out Beverly’s things. There were bags in her closet filled with outfits that had never been worn. Mom and Uncle Charles returned those that had receipts. The others went to charity organizations. I teared up when I thought of Mom, the responsible one, having to go through those bags of clothes after the death of her sister, returning purchases to The May Company, the same store at which I had been picked up for stealing back when I was fifteen.

I pondered over Beverly’s life. Maybe she thought that her singing career would launch her up and away from her Russian immigrant parents, away from slicing corned beef for Grandpa, and toward success and independence. She never made it.

But I was made of sturdier stuff than Aunt Beverly. So was Mom for that matter, although she didn’t recognize it. If she had, she would have known that she’d done a good enough job with me, and that I would be okay. I felt it that night up on the hill, the night where I got my distance and found my centre. As a teenager, I struggled to separate from Mom’s predictions about me, until, after that night, I knew that I was not like and never would be like Beverly. I was not my mother’s worst fears – which wasn’t to say that I wouldn’t make mistakes, but I’d recover from them and move forward. Mom never saw me clearly, her vision distorted by her being Beverly’s sister. I longed back then to be discovered by my own mother, for her to know me as the teenage girl I was, trying hard to figure it all out, and not as an unfulfilled middle-aged woman struggling to cope with disappointments and despair. That desire for my mother to know me lingered inside me for a long time, a persistent companion. After that night though, I knew that Mom’s worry about me was not really about me. It was a ghost from her past. For me, the weight of that ghost lifted and I felt lighter.


About Sherry Mendelson

Sherry Mendelson is a psychiatrist and writer living in the Los Angeles area with her family. Her work has been performed in Los Angeles and Palo Alto by Jewish Women's Theatre and published in Antigonish Review and The Jewish Journal. Currently she is writing a memoir about coming of age in the 1960s in California and finding her way to medical school.

Sherry Mendelson is a psychiatrist and writer living in the Los Angeles area with her family. Her work has been performed in Los Angeles and Palo Alto by Jewish Women's Theatre and published in Antigonish Review and The Jewish Journal. Currently she is writing a memoir about coming of age in the 1960s in California and finding her way to medical school.

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