I talked to Ruth today. Memories after 44 years are brief flares of light in a long dark tunnel. Sometimes ours coincide, sometimes conflict. Ruth and I don’t agree about exactly how we met. In any case, I kept visiting her. One April afternoon we were standing on the balcony, I was peppering her with questions about the ancient Middle East, and then, suddenly, we were kissing. Passionately.
For the next few months we had an explosive, clandestine affair. I was on fire yet at the same time full of doubts. Would Ruth really leave her engineer husband for an impecunious lesbian activist? A poem I wrote at the time—titled, appropriately enough, “I can’t believe you’ll leave him”—ends with the following lines:
it’s a trap and I don’t care
I tell myself it’s just
another rollercoaster affair
with a married woman from a foreign land
who’ll leave me gasping for air
but when you say you love me
I’ll go anywhere.*
When the semester was over Ruth did separate from Yoram. She arranged with the university to move into graduate student housing in the Albany flatlands, a short walk from the San Francisco Bay. One of the two bedrooms was just large enough for the baby’s crib and a bunk bed for the older kids. The other bedroom was hers (and mine), with a dresser and a mattress on the floor. The kitchenette opened into the living room, which she filled with a second-hand couch and a profusion of children’s toys.
From then on I spent most of my time in Albany, so I sublet my ground-floor apartment in Oakland. Still feeling the need of an occasional getaway, I rented the illegal “penthouse” on the roof of the same building—really a hovel, but only half the price.
I had taken a wretched clerical job, and Ruth was either teaching or working on her dissertation. Seven-year-old Ronnie was in elementary school, and four-year-old Anat in pre-school. A woman in the neighborhood took care of baby Aytan while we were at work.
The agreement was that the children would live with Ruth except for every other weekend, when Yoram would take them. At around 6:00 am on the first Saturday they spent with their father, he called and woke us up. He was very upset, even outraged, because Aytan had pooped. I didn’t handle the phone call and the conversation was in Hebrew, but I gathered that he wanted Ruth to jump in the car, drive over, and change the baby’s diaper. She told him he’d have to cope and hung up. We grinned at each other.
I was astonished, amused, and a bit outraged myself. In all the years since those three children were born, had Yoram really never changed a diaper? And why did Ruth let him get away with it?
A couple of months later Aytan had become a toddler. I remember the first time he was able to stand on the toilet seat while I cleaned his butt. He turned his head and looked me in the eyes. His expression may have triggered a memory from my own childhood, because it suddenly seemed very important not to be disgusted with him. To care for him tenderly. Like so many women, I wanted to do better than my own mother, just as she had wanted to do better than hers.
Soon Aytan was able to feed himself—and to turn the bowl of spaghetti over his head, or slap a fistful of it against the wall, while the other kids howled with laughter.
He had one ongoing problem: He would wake up crying at night. Ruth would change his wet diaper and give him a bottle. An hour later he’d be wailing again, the diaper wet, and she’d repeat the process. She and I were exhausted all the time. “This isn’t normal,” I insisted.
“He’ll grow out of it,” she replied.
But he didn’t, month after month. At the time I thought she was feeling guilty for having initiated a divorce but since then I’ve seen several other mothers unable to set limits, even when it seems like their survival depends on it.
I finally persuaded Ruth to take him to the pediatrician. The doc said Aytan was a big healthy baby, and the only thing wrong was giving him bottles every hour. He prescribed a mild sedative and said to let the boy cry himself back to sleep for a few nights if necessary. It worked.
Soon Aytan was able to climb out of the crib and snuggle with us in the morning. One day he wet our bed. When we noticed it, he grabbed the blanket, covered the spot, and blamed it on his older brother. “Wonnie did it!”
I laughed. Barely a year old, and he already knew how to lie. Nobody had to teach him. It’s the nature of our species.
To be continued…
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* That poem and 29 other equally ardent compositions were printed in my second book, Lovers and Mothers.