At a Scherma family holiday meal there was usually mayhem. Thirty people including Sadie, chief chef, and Frank and their four sons and their families and friends and Aunt Angie sat around a set of long tables. The youngest kids were placed nearby at a separate table. There was always too much food and the wine flowed readily. So did the conversation. The current topic was about having children. If Sadie were on Oprah, she would be a perfect guest. She tells all. Sadie and her younger sister Angie were speaking. I was sitting nearby.
"You need to have four or five kids to understand what it means to be a mother," Sadie said.
"So, I only had one and then my husband got sick," countered Aunt Ang. Her husband not only had M.S., but he died in 1966 at age 52.
Karen, a niece, said, "You need a man around the house, Aunt Ang."
"Get the hell outta here!" said Angie.
Sadie, speaking to Karen, her grandchild, said, "Sweetheart, you said you wanted bread and butter. It's right there. Go and eat."
Sadie continued, speaking to me, "Your father saw me give birth to Ted [her first son] and said, 'Never again, Sadie, never again!"
I asked, "How did he see you?"
"I gave birth at home."
Someone chimed in, "Sure, while they were making pasta fazoula."
"No," said Sadie, "they were in the kitchen making Jewish cheesecake...the nurse was showing them how to make Jewish cheesecake."
My friend Jim Goldstein laughed out loud.
Angie said, "I was standing outside the bedroom!"
Sadie continued, "Frank said to me that after Ted, 'Never again, Sadie, never again.' and one year later I was caught again. And he told me, 'Never.'"
"Ma, how was it when I was born?" I was the fourth son.
"You were a big mistake. All the baths I took. Soaped myself, burnt myself. And the mustard..."
Sadie, my mother, unstoppable, continued, "For four or five months I couldn't accept it and I was fighting with my husband...he couldn't say a word to me. You'd be surprised how angry I was that I was pregnant again."
My sister-in-law Gloria, needling her, said, "So, you took it out on Dad. And where were you when it happened?"
"Well, it's was HIS fault!"
Gloria, "Why was it his fault?"
"Because it was his fault!" a victimized Sadie asserted.
"No sir, no sir. It doesn't take two to tango. You can get caught."
"Yeah, but you enjoyed it," countered Gloria.
"I wish we had the pill in those days!"
Sadie continued, "...and you know the funny thing is that when I gave birth to Robert, I didn't want to go to the doctor. The doctor knew how I felt about doctors."
She turned to her oldest grandson Anthony, aged 22. He said, "But, grandmother, you have to go to the doctor for blood tests." Her grandson, the actor, always sported a real Brooklyn accent. He would urge me to see a "guht movie" he had seen or to read an article in the "Toozday" edition of the"Daily Nooz." But now after elocution lessons, he spoken in stentorian tones and uttered words like "Tyuesday" and "Daily Nyews." So here was a chance to utter lines as if in a comedic play. In a family of hams, Anthony was no exception.
"Well, you're right," she replied to her grandson, "The doctor said, 'You've got to go for blood tests.' I said, 'I'll go for the blood tests and then I'll call you when I'm ready to give birth.'"
Gloria, astounded, asked, "You had only one blood test and then you gave birth?"
Sadie, making it perfectly clear, said, "When I needed him, I called him and then I gave birth. Period."
"Grandmother?" Anthony entreated.
Sadie, "What do you want, sweetheart?"
"What's for dessert, grandmother?"
"Don't you want chestnuts, and roasted almonds, and fennel and fruit first?"
"I have to go to work in an hour and twenty minutes," he said.
"All right, you have time," Sadie told him.
"But, grandmother, when will you have coffee and dessert?" That question never got answered. Gloria went back to the original conversation.
"So was Ronny unexpected too?" she asked. He was the third son.
Sadie explained, "I was scared, 'Oh no, another child...' I already had Mickey and Ted, one was 9 and the other 12."
Ronny, in the background was starting a food fight with the nieces and nephews. He also took the carving knife when the 21 pound turkey was placed on the table and stabbed it saying, "Now, we can eat it. It's dead."
Sadie pleaded, "Ronny, Ronny, don't throw....that kid!" Ron was 41 years old and presided over a rather successful software company.
Gloria, going back to the topic at hand asked, "You got pregnant with Ronny and you weren't happy, right?"
"No, I wasn't happy. After I had Ted and Mickey... remember I was 19! I said, 'No more children.' But a year later I got caught again and I had an abortion and I got rid of that. And then a year later I had another abortion. I said, 'What the hell is going on? What...am I going to have one baby after another?'"
She looked around the table searching out for Frank, my father, her husband, "That bastard! Where is he?"
With Sadie you always got the facts, the truth of what happened. She had no censor, no monitoring device. She was like a psychotic person who just said what came to mind without thought of consequence.
Now, most of us knew this story. Sadie had two kids, then two abortions, then two more kids. But her sister Angie was hearing this for the first time. As close as the sisters were, there were secrets.
Startled, Angie asked, "You had an ABORTION?"
Then again, incredulous, to Frank, "My SISTER had an abortion?"
To Sadie, "YOU had an abortion?"
Sadie answered triumphantly, "Two!"
"...and your husband allowed you to do this?" Angie asked.
"You killed two kids!" Ang shouted in disbelief.
"I killed two kids? You mean I killed two bloods," Sadie retorted always the graphic one.
In righteous rage, "Come on, I would've had six kids... I would've gone crazy."
"Who took you for these abortions?" Ang asked.
"Your sister-in-law is no damn good!" said Ang, "I don't believe this."
Sadie reasserted, "I only got rid of bloods." With this exit line, Sadie announced that she needed to go to the bathroom and excused herself.
A few days later, Sadie and I were sitting at the kitchen table, each sipping a fresh cup of coffee from the electric Farberware percolator.
"So, Sadie, you tried to have me aborted several times? Is that really true?" I inquired.
"Yes, I didn't want any more kids. I couldn't stand it. You were a mistake.," she said for the umpteenth time.
"Sadie, do you know how it feels to be referred to as a 'mistake?'" I asked.
"You were all mistakes. Not just you," Sadie clarified.
"I know. You've been telling us that all our lives. Don't you realize what a terrible thing that is to say to a son? It made me feel unwanted and unloved. And that's how I went into the world feeling, unwanted and unloved."
"Oh, no, Robert. That wasn't it at all."
"Still, Ma, it wasn't a good thing to say," I asserted.
"I know, I know. I was crazed. It was 1942, the middle of the war. Your father was working all kinds of hours and was starting to gamble and maybe drink too much. I had three kids and I was scared."
"Yeah, Ma, go on."
Sadie continued. "When I found out I was pregnant, I was beside myself. I didn't tell your father but I tried to get rid of you with sitz baths, saline solutions, a whole bunch of things. Nothing worked. And then....."
"And then what, Ma?"
"And then you were born. And as soon as I saw your beautiful face, I fell in love with you."
I didn't know whether to give her a big hug or slap her across the face. I said, "Ma, you never told me this part of the story... the important part. Instead of feeling unwanted and unloved, I could have felt wanted and loved. Why didn't you tell me this earlier?" I implored.
"I don't know why. I thought I did. But apparently I didn't," Sadie answered in a soft and apologetic tone.
Well, I was in my 36th year and Sadie was in her 69th. Why couldn't she have told me this thirty years ago? I could have avoided all those years of misery and feeling the outsider. You know, they really ought to give that Parents' Manual they keep saying isn't given out when a child is born. Somebody ought to write that goddamned book and get it published.
"All I know is that from the first moment I saw you, I loved you," Sadie reiterated.
It was like that time I was talking to my dad in the hospital; he was in serious trouble. It was the same year. As he entered the O.R., he yelled out, "Tell Sadie this is it!"
A day later he told us, "Tell Sadie this isn't it." We were relieved.
But when I thought he could be dying, I asked my father an overwhelming question.
"Dad, do you love me?" I didn't know. How could I have known my dad all these years and not know?
He paused a moment deep in thought. Then he spoke.
"Robert, I have always loved you." I almost lost my breath.
Why hadn't I known? My dad, like my mom, hadn't let me in on the secret until now. Or was I just not listening? Or not seeing what was obvious to others and to them?
Sadie: "From the first moment I saw you, I loved you."
Frank: "Robert, I have always loved you."
Love was always there and now it was recovered, or at least uncovered. And for this I was grateful.
Rob Scherma is a psychologist in New York City who hails from his Italian-American roots in Brooklyn. While he studied psychology at various universities and psychoanalytic institutes, his major training occurred within the confines of his wild and wacky family where he learned that despite people's nuttiness, there is light at the end of the tunnel and it is filled with fun and laughter.