Red Diaper Baby

(by Lisa Herman)


In my childhood home in the Toronto suburbs, the couch was covered with plastic, with plastic plants for decoration. In my mother’s kitchen, the table was plastic, the chairs too, and we ate from hard plastic Melmac dishes that she bought at a discount from a cousin’s warehouse in Chicago. We’d traveled from Toronto to visit the windy city where she grew up. I was two years old, and it was my first trip on a train—in sleeping cars, my mother with me, and my father across the aisle with my little brother. The porter didn’t understand that we were together, a family, as my mother and I had American passports, while my father and brother had Canadian ones. It’s a complicated American story from the Senator McCarthy witch-hunt days.


My mother was an idealistic Communist, a glamorous former pin-up girl and radio actress. Dad was a handsome, rough-and-tumble Royal Canadian Air Force vet from Montreal. They were introduced when he was attending the California Labor School in San Francisco and visiting his Hollywood screenwriter older brother in Los Angeles. My mother and future uncle brought fellow-traveler Dad into their local inner circle. The Party itself was then legal, but the writing was on the wall. The passing of the Taft-Hartley Act, restricting the rights of workers and unions, came into being while I was in utero. Since Dad was a labor union organizer, he knew that deportation to Canada was nigh. So we went to join my uncle and his family in an enclave of lefties in Crystal Beach, Ontario.


Mom never talked about those days, nor did Dad. We “red diaper babies” grew up with secrets—perhaps to protect us and comrades so if we were tortured, we couldn’t name names. These were the days of the House Committee on Un-American Affairs. Dissenters who refused to comply with HUAC could be jailed and were blacklisted from working in Hollywood. I found out later from a newspaper article that Mom was named by someone she had recruited into her cell. It finally explained why she had scratched out this guy’s face in their wedding album.


As soon as I was sentient enough to realize that I was American, things got complicated. In Toronto, my mother took me to anti-American demonstrations, and I listened to her vitriolic rants about the U.S. at home. Confusing. We were pro-Russia and for nuclear disarmament—not the zeitgeist or concern of my neighborhood friends. We saw the Moiseyev State Ensemble of Popular Dance (part of the Bolshoi Ballet) when they came from Moscow to perform, and I knew the lyrics to “Joe Hill,” “Strangest Dream,” and “Solidarity Forever.” (Years later, living in the U.S., I’m sure my red-diaper history got me rejected from joining the Peace Corps.) My parents and their friends didn’t talk politics, but they started a Socialist-leaning theater, and I ushered for a production of Enemy of the People. I sang “God Save the Queen” in school every morning and recited The Lord’s Prayer, but early on, I learned that religion was the opiate of the people. I didn’t know I was Jewish until an older girl called me a dirty one, in the dressing room at Bathurst Heights High School, where younger kids could swim on weekends.


From the plastic plates on the plastic table of my mother’s kitchen, we ate what 1950s children ate. Every morning we had a boiled egg, white toast, and Frye’s cocoa. Lunch was often tomato soup and a tuna sandwich. I didn’t develop taste buds until I left home, except for sweet and sour tongue that my father sometimes made on a weekend if he was home. There was no joy in eating. The food was flavorless and repetitive. We had to finish everything on the plate and sit there until we did.


But then out of nowhere, my mother would bake and let me taste the dough as she made it. The smell of baking cookies would permeate the house, and I’d get to eat a couple while they were still warm, the soft chocolate chips melting on my tongue.


I never knew what mood she’d be in. In a rage, she would attack me for an offense I didn’t understand and punish me by silently pretending I didn’t I exist until I apologized for generalized disobedience. But then there were cookies, and once she sewed doll clothes for me. Sometimes there were dress-up clothes from her former outfits: a stole with rhinestones, a leopard muff, hats with little veils. On these occasions, it felt like she was doing what a mother is supposed to do, but it wasn’t real. It seemed like she was always in character, playing a role. I never saw her without makeup or just lounging around. She didn’t play or laugh with me or anyone else that I knew of. If she wanted to hug me, it was difficult.


Ironically, she was the president of the Home and School Association, with her own radio show giving parents advice on how to raise their children. She was rigidly doing the “right things” for the world and for her children, who were supposed to act perfectly as she did. Only later did I understand that the presentation of a pseudo-perfect family was a cover for radical political beliefs.


My father’s solution was mostly to stay away from home. He didn’t know how to keep up a constructed idea of middle-class life. He was working-class, with barely a high-school education. He smoked, drank, and played poker. He had friends; she didn’t. My mother, a university graduate, tried to civilize him. I loved him dearly as he was. He died when I was 17. I can still taste the tangy sweetness of his cooking.


I married a man who loves to cook. He makes a varied and flavorful dinner for me every night. My grown daughter gets recipes from her dad to prepare food for her family, and turns to him for advice in the midst of a culinary crisis. I provide various other kinds of solace. This arrangement works for us just fine.

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Lisa Herman is an actor, writer and psychotherapist who lives in San Francisco. She can be found at www.lisaherman.net or www.backstage.com.


Sweet and Sour Tongue

(adapted from kosher.com)


3 lb. tongue

16 oz. tomato sauce

1/2 c. brown sugar

1/4 lb. raisins

1 1/2 c. water

1/4 lb. dried apricots


Place tongue in a large, heavy pot, and add water to cover.

Bring to a boil, lower heat, and cook for 3 hours.

Drain, cool thoroughly, and peel off skin.

Slice thinly.

Combine remaining ingredients in a large pot and bring to a boil.

Lower heat, add sliced tongue to the sauce, and simmer for 45 minutes over low heat.

Alternately, heat sliced tongue and sauce in oven at 375 F. for 1 hour.