The wailing woke me at 3:00 AM. I tried to ignore it. I had to get up for work in a few hours. A bus and two subways, my commute to Manhattan was substantial. At first, I thought it must be a dog crying in the cold winter’s night. But after a few seconds, I realized it was a woman screaming my mother’s name.
Finally, my mother emerged from her bedroom in her thin cotton robe. She stopped short in the hallway in front of my bedroom door, just listening. I could tell she knew who it was. Unable to go back to sleep in this racket, I ran out of my room into the living room and saw the wailer through the window, standing on the street corner still screaming. When I was little, I used to call it "crash corner" before the city of New York deigned to install a traffic light at our patch of Flatlands Avenue in Brooklyn.
Florence. A big-boned woman with unkempt, unevenly dyed long brown hair, who was a gambling acquaintance of my parents’. American born. My parents were Eastern European refugees from the war. Everyone they knew was classified as either "Greeneh" like them, or American born. Having American grandparents like Florence, was tantamount to Mayflower status. But my father thought she was just a loudmouth. At the moment, I had to agree.
My first thought wasn’t curiosity about why she was contorting her face like that or even why she was destroying my night. I was just furious at myself for having returned to this chaotic world, after having successfully escaped to college. But $12,000 a year as an editorial assistant didn’t go very far in 1985. The only thing I knew was that I wanted to escape, but I had no plan. I knew how to write papers about Jane Austen's use of the library in Pride and Prejudice. I didn’t know how to do life.
My mother finally decided to act. Ma slowly opened up the front door, and inched out onto the porch. She was scream-whispering, as if the neighbors hadn’t already been wakened. I withdrew from the window, but not too far; I wondered what my mother had done this time.
“Florence, Florence, calm down, why are you screaming?”
The calm in Ma’s voice seemed to inflame Florence more.
”YOU SAID YOU’D COME BACK. GIVE ME MY MONEY! WHERE IS MY MONEY?”
“Florence, quiet down. You’re going to give yourself a heart attack.”
This went back and forth until Ma decided it was best to get Florence into the house. I retreated to my room, which was off the kitchen. I left the door slightly ajar. Kneeling beside the open crack, I saw Florence—quiet but still wild-eyed — and my mother sitting at the dining table.
After a few more “Where’s my money"s followed by my mother’s phony concerns for Florence’s health, I ascertained that they’d been playing poker earlier that night.
A dozen years earlier, Ma had temporarily stopped playing cards when Dad had threatened her with divorce. She began playing again, with a vengeance, after I left home for college. And now that I was back home, she was more out of control than ever, sometimes gone for days at a time at illegal gambling dens in Brooklyn, borrowing money from whomever she nudged long enough. Dad often was there too, but I was more forgiving toward him; he still made it to work six days a week, at the decorating store he owned with his brother. Ma thought I was just a daddy’s girl. I refused to admit that she had a point.
“That’s okay,” she used to say, “I loved my father more, too.” This night, Ma had been playing without him.
“You said you were going home to get my $300! WHERE’S MY MONEY!”
“What do you mean, Florence?”
I thought Florence would smack her but she just went back to wailing. Then, a new wrinkle.
“THEY’RE GOING TO KILL MY DAUGHTER! OH! OH! WHAT DID YOU DO TO ME? THEY HAVE A KNIFE TO HER THROAT! GIVE ME MY MONEEEEEEEEEEEY.”
Hmm. She’s out playing 5 card stud while some loan shark’s thugs hold a knife to her daughter? Blithely playing cards and lending my mother money? Nu-uh.
“Florence, what do you mean?”
“CLARA, DO YOU WANT ME TO PUT A KNIFE TO YOUR DAUGHTER’S THROAT? IS THAT WHAT YOU WANT?”
That was enough for me. I ran back to the furthest room in the house.
Finally, Ma ended the stalemate. She left Florence at the table, and walked back to the master bedroom. She woke up Dad, who had managed to sleep through the whole thing.
“Archie. Arahleh.” I couldn’t hear the words, but whatever they were, they were spoken gently, lovingly.
“No. I told you. I will never pay your debts again.”
“Archie, please. Please. Archie, please. Please.”
Finally, I heard a quick loud cracking sound. I was sure he had slapped her. He’d never done anything like that before. To be honest, I couldn’t blame him.
It was a slap of resignation. Again. I heard a closet door open, then some rustling, then the closet door close. He would have to find a new secret stash.
“Here, Florence.” Ma sounded as if she was lending her neighbor a cup of sugar. The madwoman was gone within seconds.
Ma silently walked past me and went back to bed. The house was eerily quiet, except for the clicking sound of Ma turning on the Late Late Show. As I slowly passed my parents’ bedroom on the way back to mine, I could see my father was already asleep again, while my mother calmly watched her 13” black and white TV, wearing headphones plugged in to the set.
Mindy Greenstein is a clinical psychologist and author of the acclaimed memoir, The House on Crash Corner (Greenpoint Press, 2011). She also writes The Flip Side, an eclectic blog, for PsychologyToday.com. Her essays have appeared in The New York Times, Washington Post, SELF, and various other newspapers, magazines, and journals. Dr. Greenstein is a research affiliate of the Department of Psychiatry and Behavioral Sciences at Memorial Sloan Kettering Cancer Center, where she was one of the developers of Meaning-Centered Group Psychotherapy.