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    BWS Stories - "Born in the U.S.A."...Childhood Memories

    "Born in the U.S.A."...Childhood Memories - SOMEONE TO WATCH OVER ME

    S. NADJA ZAJDMAN is a writer and an actress based in Montreal, Canada. She has had short stories and essays published in literary journals, and has performed her material on radio and in live readings. Her many theatre roles include the one-woman show "Shirley Valentine," and the title role in "Sheindele." In an all-female production of Julius Caesar she played a vicious assassin, and thoroughly enjoyed it.


    On All Hallows' Eve, when the veil is lifted at the frontier between the land of the living and the land of the dead, I walk through my neighbourhood observing the street theatre of sprites and spooks floating down the sidewalks with expanding sacks as they bravely broach the doors of duplexes and Gothic-like mansions draped with fake cobwebs, while cassette players blast unearthly howls and shrieks through loudspeakers hooked up on the branches of the fading maple trees. Pint-size trick-or-treaters are unashamedly chauffeured by accommodating parents. Tiny witches and toddler-devils alight from vans steered by their mothers. Shuffling through dead copper-coloured leaves, past stuffed cadavers and hollowed-out pumpkins, I remember a remote October. Halloweens were simpler then, but still we had to endure the presence of our parents.   

    My mother's sister owned a dry goods store, and would create elaborate costumes for me and my older cousin Ava. In particular, I remember the black-and-orange quilt with matching cap which carved me into a pumpkin. I had the figure for it. The autumn I'm reflecting on, however, I went out as a gypsy. My aunt had sewn a rainbow of chiffon scarves onto a belt, which was attached to the area of my anatomy which, we all hoped, would one day whittle down into a waist. I wore a real skirt and tights underneath the belt-load of scarves, to keep me warm on the cold fall evening. I also wore sturdy Oxford shoes, a sober white blouse, and a red wool cardigan. A red sash, with sequins sewn in, was wrapped around my thick dark hair. With my flashing dark eyes and hair red was, and always will be my colour. My daddy said so. Ava, who played in the school band, lent me her tambourine. Ava was going out as a prince. The fact that she was female was irrelevant. She preferred princely hose to a princess' robe. As a prince, Ava got to wear the mossy green tights she wasn't allowed to wear with her school tunic, and a form-fitting forest-green tunic which her mother had draped on her. I inspected my cousin's costume. "You don't look like a prince; you look like Robin Hood." Ava was taken aback.  "Weeell, Robin Hood could be a prince." To me, the line of succession was smudged. "How?"  Disconcerted, Ava dismissed me. "Oh, you're always asking stupid questions!"

                  Since I was going trick-or-treating with my older cousin and her best friend Rosie, I warned my father not to tag along. "I'm seven years old now. I'm going with the big girls. Don't embarrass me!"

    When dusk fell a plump little gypsy, a girl-prince and her slave ventured into the dark suburban streets.  Rosie was Ava's slave. Her costume was easy.  All she needed were chains. Rosie was also an Elvis fan. On Sundays Rosie would recline on my aunt's plush loveseat playing Ava's Elvis records-not the good songs, but the sappy ones which were the soundtracks to those god-awful movies. She would kiss his image on the record jacket and hug and cuddle the jacket, while he sang. She never seemed to care that she was kissing painted cardboard.   Rosie would kiss Elvis' picture ON THE LIPS! She knew I was watching her, and she wasn't even embarrassed.

                On this Halloween, the prince and her slave carried sacks ready to be filled with edible treats, but all I had was a penny box for UNICEF. My mother made me do it. There was no point in asking anything for myself. Even when I managed to come home with a filled sack, my mother would confiscate my loot and hand it over to the children's hospital. "If chocolate and candy aren't healthy, then why are you giving it to kids who are sick?!" Like my query on Robin Hood's claim to the throne, I never got an answer to that, either.

    Our motley trio's outing was going well until we turned a corner onto an abandoned street. Our prince had led us there. Ava was the eldest, and she was panic-stricken. "There's a man following us!" hissed Prince Ava. She was right. A shadow loomed under a street lamp. We stopped. The Shadow stopped. When we started to walk, The Shadow started to walk. We stopped again. So did The Shadow. Rosie wanted to run, but the chains she'd had attached to her ankles, as well as to her wrists, prevented her from doing so. I would never try to run, because I knew I could never run fast enough. Prince Ava and The Elvis Admirer were whipping themselves into frenzy. I felt oddly calm. There was something comfortingly familiar about the tired, flat-footed step falling onto the sidewalk behind us. "I'm going to see who it is." "No!"  Prince Ava started to cry. She stood paralysed. "Don't turn around!" "Aw, quit balling," the littlest gypsy scolded her older cousin. "This is dumb!"

     I turned to confront The Shadow; it's always best to confront one's shadow. My suspicions were confirmed. "Daaaadddy!" I shook the tambourine at my taken-for-granted protector. "You promised! You're not supposed to be here! How could you embarrass me?!"

    Caught in the light of the lamp, The Shadow hung his head. "I didn't want to!" My father fibbed.  Or maybe he didn't. My father fostered independence but father, like daughter, was no match for the matriarch. "I'm sorry."  Sheepishly, The Shadow apologized. "Mummy made me. You know I can't say no to Mummy!"

    Twenty years later, on a glorious October morning, a memorial stone was laid at the foot of my father's grave. Even six months after his death, his absence was unreal. Now I felt real terror, and true fright. I descended into a well of loneliness from which I've never completely emerged.  I'd never known a world without my father and couldn't imagine adjusting to one, though I knew that I must. The most I could hope for was to grow strong in the broken place.

    My mother stoically contemplated the empty space beside my dad, waiting to be filled. The rabbi chanted. I was choking on dry-eyed anguish. I thirstily gulped down the cold autumn air and focused on the leaves feathering the blue, cloudless sky...Crimson and saffron and citrine; marmalade and scarlet and apricot and tangerine, red mango and burnished amber and tarnished gold foliage exploded over my head like soundless firecrackers, their shades radiant as the spirit over whose grave they hovered, dying vividly, vibrantly, in riotous, unbridled bloom. The leaves died as Daddy had died, as Daddy had lived; vitally, resoundingly alive.
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