1950: Jo 1950 Jo
The four Kaufmans stood at the curb in front of the new house on Alhambra Street, as if they were afraid to set foot on the lawn, even though Jo knew they could. The lawn belonged to them now, along with the house, with its red bricks and the white aluminum awning. Every part of it, the front door and the steps, the mailbox at the curb, the cherry tree in the backyard and the maple tree by the driveway, the carport and the basement and the attic you could reach by a flight of stairs that you pulled down from the ceiling, all of it belonged to the Kaufmans. They were moving out of the bad part of Detroit, which Jo’s parents said was crowded and unhealthy, full of bad germs and diseases and filling up with people who weren’t like them; they were moving up in the world, to this new neighborhood, to a house that would be all their own.
“Oh, Ken,” said Jo’s mother, as she squeezed his arm with her gloved hand. Her mother’s name was Sarah, and she was just over five feet tall, with white skin that always looked a little suntanned, shiny brown hair that fell in curls to her shoulders, and a pursed, painted red mouth beneath a generous nose. Her round chin jutted forward, giving her a determined look, and there were grooves running from the corners of her nose to the edges of her lips, but that morning, her mouth was turned up at the corners, not scrunched up in a frown. She was happy, and as close to beautiful as Jo had ever seen.
Jo wrapped her arms around her mother’s waist, feeling the stiffness underneath the starch of Sarah’s best red dress, the one with a full skirt flaring out from her narrow waist and three big white buttons on either side of the bodice. A smart red hat with a black ribbon band sat on top of Sarah’s curls. Her mother put her arm around Jo’s shoulders and squeezed, and Jo felt like someone had pulled a blanket up to her chin, or like she was swimming in Lake Erie, where they went in the summertime, and had just paddled into a patch of warm water.
“So, girls? What do you think?” asked Jo’s daddy.
“It’s like a castle!” said Bethie, her little sister. Bethie was five years old, chubby and cute, with pale white skin, naturally curly hair, and blue-green eyes, and she always said exactly the right thing. Jo was six, almost seven, tall and gangly, and almost everything she did was wrong.
Jo smiled, dizzy with pleasure as her dad scooped her up in his arms. Ken Kaufman had thick dark hair that he wore combed straight back from his forehead. His nose, Jo thought, gave him a hawklike aspect. His eyes were blue underneath dark brows, and he smelled like the bay rum cologne he patted on his cheeks every morning after he shaved. He was only a few inches taller than his wife, but he was broad-shouldered and solid. Standing in front of the house he’d bought, he looked as tall as Superman from the comic books. He wore his good gray suit, a white shirt, a red tie to match Sarah’s dress, and black shoes that Jo had helped him shine that morning, setting the shoes onto yesterday’s Free Press, working the polish into the leather with a tortoiseshell-handled brush. Jo and Bethie wore matching pink gingham dresses that their mother had sewn, with puffy sleeves, and patent-leather Mary Janes. Bethie could hardly wait to try on the new dress. When Jo had asked to wear her dungarees, her mother had frowned. “Why would you want to wear pants? Today’s a special day. Don’t you want to look pretty?”
Jo couldn’t explain. She didn’t have the words to say how she felt about pretty, how the lacy socks itched and the fancy shoes pinched and the elastic insides of the sleeves left red dents in her upper arms. When she was dressed up, Jo just felt wrong, like it was hard to breathe, like her skin no longer fit, like she’d been forced into a costume or a disguise, and her mother was always shushing her, even when she wasn’t especially loud. She didn’t care about looking pretty, and she didn’t like dresses. Her mother, she knew, would never understand.
“It’s our house,” Jo’s mother was saying, her voice rich with satisfaction.
“The American Dream,” said Jo’s dad. To Jo, the house didn’t seem like much of a dream. It wasn’t a castle with a moat, no matter what Bethie had said, or even a mansion, like the ones in Grosse Pointe that Jo had seen when the family had driven there for a picnic. It was just a regular house, square-shaped and boring red, with a triangle-shaped roof plopped on top, like the one in her “Dick and Jane” readers, on a street of houses that looked just the same. In their old neighborhood, they’d lived in an apartment. You could walk up the stairs and smell what everyone was cooking for dinner. The sidewalks had bustled with people, kids, and old men and women, people with light skin and dark skin. They’d sit on their stoops on warm summer nights, speaking English or Yiddish, or Polish or Italian. Here, the streets were quiet. The air just smelled like air, not food, the sidewalks were empty, and the people she’d seen so far all had white skin like they did. But maybe, in this new place, she could make a fresh start. Maybe here, she could be a good girl.
Except now she had a problem. Her dad had borrowed a camera, a boxy, rectangular Kodak Duaflex with a stand and a timer. The plan was for them all to pose on the steps in front of the house for a picture, but Sarah had made her wear tights under their new dresses, and the tights had caused Jo’s underpants to crawl up the crack of her tushie, where they’d gotten stuck. Jo knew if she pulled them out her mother would see, and she’d get angry. “Stop fidgeting!” she would hiss, or “A lady doesn’t touch her private parts in public,” except everything itched her so awfully that Jo didn’t think she could stand it.
Things like this never happened to Bethie. If Jo hadn’t seen it herself, she wouldn’t have believed that her sister even had a tushie crack. The way Bethie behaved, you’d expect her to be completely smooth down there, like one of the baby dolls Bethie loved. Jo had dolls, too, but she got bored with them once she’d chopped off their hair or twisted off their heads. Jo shifted her weight from side to side, hoping it would dislodge her underwear. It didn’t.
Her father pulled the keys out of his pocket, flipped them in the air, and caught them neatly in his hand. “Let’s go, ladies!” His voice was loud and cheerful. Bethie and Sarah climbed the stairs and stood in front of the door. Sarah peered across the lawn, shadowing her eyes with her hand, frowning.
“Come on, Jo!”
Jo took one step, feeling her underwear ride up higher. Another step. Then another. When she couldn’t stand it anymore, she reached behind her, grabbed a handful of pink gingham, hooked her thumb underneath the underpants’ elastic, and yanked. All she’d meant to do was pull her panties back into place, but she tugged so vigorously that she tore the skirt away from its bodice. The sound of the ripping cloth was the loudest sound in the world.
“Josette Kaufman!” Sarah’s face was turning red. Her father look startled, and Bethie’s face was horrified.
“I’m sorry!” Jo felt her chest start getting tight.
“What’s the matter with you?” Sarah snapped. “Why can’t you be good for once?”
“Sarah.” Ken’s voice was quiet, but angry.
“Oh, sure!” said Sarah, and tossed her head. “You always take up for her!” She stopped talking, which was good, except then she started crying, which was bad. Jo stood on the lawn, dress torn, tights askew, watching tears cut tracks through her mother’s makeup, hearing her father’s low, angry voice, wondering if there was something wrong with her, why things like this were always happening, why she couldn’t be good, and why her mom couldn’t have just let her wear pants, the way she’d wanted.