Updated: Sep 21, 2019
Mom takes my little sister Amy and me to the circus, the perfect place to inform us about the imminent divorce. Amy and I are too distracted to really get it. I gaze up with rapt attention at the trapeze artists. When the male flyer falls fifty feet, all eyes follow him to the net below, except mine, which remain fixed on the female flyer’s pretty pointed toes.
After the divorce, mom moves us from the suburbs to the city. It’s a rough transition for me; I’m grossed out by the dog poop I have to dodge on the walk to school, unnerved at having to take an elevator to our apartment in the company of the ancient, boozy elevator man, and not thrilled to be the “new boy” at a new school.
Education is extremely important to our family; my paternal grandmother, Nonnie, never stops reminding me about the importance of good schooling, “Duffy, you listen, you. Education means money, and money means power, which is what you got to have for when (not if) the Nazis return.” Nonnie, the sharp-tongued but much-adored family matriarch, is a real fixture in the lives of her eleven grandchildren… a focal point. We cousins believe that Nonnie has a ranking system for all of us, connected to what promises to be an enormous inheritance. For many years, all of her grandchildren jockey for position, currying favor, and sharing information and rumors about who is in the top spot, and who might have fallen in the rankings. When Nonnie passes away, decades later, there is just a small piggy bank.
Mom enrolls us in the best private school in Chicago, a stuffy, preppy, WASP-infested institution, where I have to wear a tie and jacket every day. It’s a suffocating place, with windows that don’t open, and gray industrial carpeting throughout. I soon discover that I am the only Jewish kid in first grade when a classmate calls me “Christ Killer”. A bunch of the kids take up the chant. Oddly, this instills in me a feeling of accomplishment. Later, I find paintings of Jesus in mom’s coffee table art books, and I’m horrified by depictions of the crucifixion, especially the spikes driven through the poor guy’s feet.