Dreams are true while they last,
and do we not live in dreams?
Lord Alfred Tennyson
Tennyson had a point. I spent most of my childhood alone, cavorting within the boundaries of my own imagination. The mind is not an unusual sandbox for a child to play in. Because both my mother and father drank and swallowed numerous colorful pills, I escaped more and more into the walled-up refuge of my silent thoughts.
My father, Stanley Perlman, was a huge bear of a man, six feet five inches, with hands as big as hams and a smile as bright and caressing as sunlight. I loved to climb up in his lap, put my arms around his tree trunk of a neck, and settle into the warm pillow of his cheek. His bulk and personality could fill any room, leaving that room more than empty when he was gone.
He was gone a lot.
Before my father decided to attach our financial fate to the quixotic Florida real estate market, he was a traveling salesman, constantly on the road peddling his family's line of housecoat dresses. As dads often do, he would promise to someday take me on the road with him, but then he would leave before I woke without so much as saying good-bye.
I would stand in the living room for hours on end, staring out the window hoping to see his car coming around the corner. My mother, Germaine, or as she called herself, Gerry, too young and ill-equipped to handle two babies and long periods of self-sufficiency, would finally become exasperated with my forlorn face and send me to my room. Why was I punished for exhibiting honest emotion, I couldn't fathom. Looking back, I'm quite certain that she watched me in such a rattled state of longing for my father that she suffered the very human daggers of jealousy.
My mother was nothing if not extremely human.
With the pressures piling on her shoulders over the years, my mother housed herself inside a brick exterior. In the eyes of a child, she was powerful and unrelenting, much like an armored tank. I took her deportment at face value, which, as we all come to learn as we grow older, has little to do with true value.
If anything, a tough outer shell is usually a sure sign that the soul inside is drowning in a whirlpool of pain and self-doubt. At a very tender age I figured out that what you see is half of what you get. In sharp contrast to my own emotional personality, I do remember that my mother allowed herself the luxury of tears one time, when her own mother died.
Most children who find themselves alone in that same situation would quickly conjure up an imaginary friend. Someone who, though invisible, would love them, understand them, and, best of all, never leave them suddenly for business trips out of town. Why I never bothered to whip up an imaginary friend I don't know. In retrospect, it would have been nice to have someone under the same roof that was always on my side. However, my root personality made that impossible. It always seemed that the apple dangling from the highest limb of the tallest tree is what I found the most tantalizing.
As I look back on it now, I feel that the core reason why I didn't fantasize about an invisible friend is because I felt so terribly invisible myself. Rather than play jacks in my room with a best friend who didn't exist, I spent those lonely hours believing that I was put on this earth with a mission: I was a messenger of God.
I'm more than a little embarrassed to admit that I don't remember exactly what that message was; I do know that I refused to write it down for fear someone else may find it and then that person would become the messenger of God.
Nevertheless, I do remember how believing that I was handpicked for this all-important task down here on Earth made me feel blessedly important. If only in the backstreets of my own imagination, I was a somebody.
When I was very young, my mother made me say my prayers before going to bed. 'Now I lay me down to sleep, I pray the Lord my soul to keep. If I should die before I wake, I pray the Lord my soul to take.' It's questionable whether any prayer with the word 'die' in it should be the last thing on a child's lips before nodding off, but I don't remember feeling any shiver of panic as I snuggled my small frame beneath the thick covers. In fact, the opposite proved to be true. Long after my mother kissed me on the forehead and turned out the light, I would remain awake, and in my childlike way, I would ponder the meaning of death and the soul.
My parents tried to give their children formal religious training. My brother and I attended Jewish Sunday school. Even though they insisted that my brother have a bar mitzvah, neither their hearts nor their temperaments were suited to rigid theology. I had been raised Reform, which, in the Jewish faith, is considered barely being Jewish at all. The more Orthodox branches of my religion grudgingly admit that we believe in God, although they wonder if we have trouble remembering His name.
My religious training can best be summed up as hit-and-miss, and though we celebrated the holidays of my faith, God was treated just like an easygoing patriarch, without the customary obedience and reverence He was accorded in more Orthodox homes. My mother held firm to the belief that the soul was eternal and that you could reach God no matter where you were or what you'd done. My dad also believed that each individual had a direct line of prayer to God. Having been a prisoner of war (POW), my father had learned the importance of individuality and inner strength, and, added to his natural streak of rebellion, he had no interest in any religion that was organized and tidy. He was convinced that once the more base and basic of man's foibles got involved, religion and its dogma lost the fundamental foundation of love.
My parents' beliefs pushed open the doors to my own youthful exploration, which reached its pseudointellectual zenith when I was fourteen and pompously wrote a school paper that stated with certainty that religion is nothing more than an opiate for the masses (as Karl Marx called it), a crutch to avoid confronting the finality of death. With all the conviction of youth, I stated that 'true strength' was to face and acknowledge that this life is all there is, and that the universe is benignly indifferent to our little piping dreams, and that we all eventually become dust. At this age, I considered myself quite the expert on death, having devoured the works of heavyweights such as Elie Wiesel, Albert Camus, Franz Kafka, and Jean-Paul Sartre. The result of all this was that, while my contemporaries busied themselves sniffing out a date for the prom, I poured my energies into waving a flag for existentialism.
I realize now that I was one of those annoying teenagers who figured that if a word had enough syllables in it, it had to be deep, and I grabbed a seat on that bandwagon. Soon I came around again, this time with Hermann Hesse. Growing up in a household where the Almighty was so malleable, fluid, and unboxed by doctrine, it didn't take any great leap of imagination on my part to assign myself the role of His assistant.
It was a safe and loving hole for me to climb into. I never believed that my parents ever really heard me. I felt I had to prove them wrong by justifying my existence. I couldn't conceive of a showier, more exalted position to land than being the messenger of God. I told no one of my new calling, realizing that my mission was best kept under wraps until the proper moment when God and I were ready to spring it on the world.
But like an envelope stamped and ready to mail—and then overlooked and forgotten—the moment my father would walk through the front door, all was right with the world. I wisely chose not to discuss my bedroom revelation with my parents, as they were too busy struggling their way through this life to pay much attention to whatever may come after.
My mother's concern was paying the grocer's bill, while my father spent sleepless nights wondering why women across America were suddenly no longer wanting to wear housecoat dresses. My father's business predicament wasn't that he always found himself in the wrong place at the wrong time. It was more heartbreaking than that. He always seemed to land in the right place just as the right time was ending.
I would put down my bombastic revelation to a child's flight of fancy soaring out of a lagoon of loneliness if not for the emotions it stirred within me. Those emotions still exist, but no longer as shields to protect me from a reality too cold and harsh to deal with. Over the years, they've solidified into a belief system that encompasses all the realities that life has to offer.
What I had unknowingly unearthed was an innate belief system that there was a very real and definite connective tissue that binds us to the unseen world,where hearts and minds travel after their stay on this planet has been completed. This was my first connection with that gossamer thing we call the soul. Let's see an imaginary friend do that!
Perhaps all of the emotional contortions I put myself through could have been avoided had my mother scooped me up in her arms and given me warm kisses of understanding. Maybe if my father had not left so many times on business without saying good-bye. Perhaps he thought this silent departure would be easier on me, or, with his own ego in such a fragile state, maybe he thought I wouldn't notice. I don't know. Maybe it was all just to keep me in communion with heaven. When you are that lonely, you rely on what love there is—even if you cannot see it.
I do know, as the cliché so aptly puts it, you can't un-ring a bell. But there does come a time when we have to stop listening to the clanging in our ears. I don't blame any aftermath my emotions may have suffered on their actions or lack thereof. As I have learned since giving birth, parenthood is not an exact science, and no matter how pure and positive your intentions, the odds of actually hitting your mark are somewhere below that of bowling ...
--This text refers to an out of print or unavailable edition of this title.