“I don’t think I’d make a good mother to boys,” I said.
It was an October afternoon in 1978, clear sky, fresh coffee in front of us, and the hum and honking of traffic a few blocks away. Four of us were hanging out on the porch of the Berkeley home that belonged to the lesbian couple with the newborn son. A mutual friend had just introduced me to them. When they heard what I’d said, the young mothers blew up. They chewed me out as though I’d advocated genocide against male children.
I tried to explain that I was contemplating my own limitations, not prescribing for anyone else, but they were having none of it. If they had given me a chance, I would have told them that I didn’t think I’d be much good with girl children either, had never considered motherhood at all and, if the truth be told, was horrified at the idea. But they never invited me over again.
* * *
In early September, after a year of self-imposed exile in Etna, a small town in northern California, Max and I had returned to the Bay Area. We had been lovers since 1975, but she had never wanted to share living quarters with me. Despite Etna’s minuscule size (population 700), we had found separate apartments there. When we returned to Oakland I rented a one-bedroom on the ground floor of a rundown building and Max found something similar in another neighborhood. Though we continued getting together for hikes in the regional parks, our relationship had gone stale, and on one of those hikes she suggested that we break up. I agreed.
* * *
Meanwhile I forged ahead with the project I had started in Etna. I had gotten the notion to write a novel about Jezebel, Queen of Israel in the 9th Century BCE. However, Etna had only a one-room bookstore and a one-room library. For a somewhat wider selection I had to drive 30 miles over mountain roads to the Yreka Public Library. There they had exactly one book on the ancient Middle East—the Bible, which I considered of dubious historicity. I could have ordered books through interlibrary loan, but I had no idea what to ask for. (The internet as we know it wouldn’t begin to exist until 15 years later.)
Once I was back in the Bay Area, for only $100 a year I could purchase access to the vast collections of the UC Berkeley library.
Another resource was the campus chapter of Hillel, the Jewish organization that serves college students. I signed up for a Biblical Hebrew class, and another in modern Hebrew. The man who taught Biblical—let’s call him Jack—was about my age, earnest, and very much in love with his subject. The old Semitic grammar is very different from the grammars of English and other European tongues, and I’m nerdy enough to find this fascinating. But what made the hairs on my neck stand up was discovering that the mystical mumbo-jumbo my grandfather recited in the synagogue and at the Passover Seder was a real human language! The words had actual meanings, and I could read and understand them.
Ruth Litwin, a native speaker, taught modern Hebrew. She also seemed to love her subject, loved teaching, and was intensely energetic. As I learned later, she had been born in Poland shortly after World War II. Her parents survived the Holocaust and, like many other survivors, lived in a displaced persons camp until Ruth was four, when they managed to immigrate to Israel. My mother’s family was also from Poland but had left decades earlier, so I was born in relative safety in Brooklyn, in 1943. Ruth and I could have been cousins—the same dark brown hair and eyes, olive complexion, broad hips.
I don’t remember how it was that we started meeting after class, but late in February Ruth invited me to her place. I drove up a narrow winding road into the Berkeley hills and parked the old VW bug with its wheels jammed against the even narrower sidewalk, to let other cars pass. Down the street a Victorian box tree had come into bloom, its orange blossom scent mingling with, even overpowering, the ever pungent eucalyptus.
Ruth let me in. Light filtered through the street trees and through casement windows taking up most of the front wall, a soft light in the spacious living room that had been painted a deep sky blue, with a white ceiling and white trim. Her older children were in school. The youngest—Aytan, age six months—sat in a high chair. We talked about our lives. Ruth and her husband had come to the United States to study. After a few years at some university in the Midwest, they had to decide between another Midwestern institution or UC Berkeley, and Ruth wanted Berkeley. She was enrolled as a PhD candidate at the School of Social Welfare, while he was already employed as an engineer. She confided that she was unhappy in her marriage but had resigned herself to it.
It was time to feed Aytan. Ruth opened a jar of baby oatmeal and stood nearby, folding laundry, while I spooned the puree into his mouth. I took a washcloth and wiped a bit of dribble from his chin. He seemed happy to accept me, as though no stranger had ever hurt him, while I felt warm and connected to this sweet-smelling creature. Aytan had the same big chocolate eyes as his mother and the two of them watched me, he calm and expectant, she with head tilted, appraising. Time slowed down—and then the jar was empty, the laundry was finished, and the visit was over.