With her bottle-blonde hair freshly blown and makeup done to perfection, Ina Short appeared to have been born into an upper-class lifestyle. She wore a cashmere sweater, designer jeans, and Chanel ballet flats and fit right in with the ladies who lunched at Barney Greengrass, but Dawn knew her mother’s graciousness was pure facade. Underneath, she was a Holocaust survivor who moved to the United States from Poland as a young child. Growing up in the Melrose/Fairfax district, Ina learned Russian and Yiddish as first languages and rarely ventured outside her insular Orthodox community. Initially, she struggled with English, often misusing words, phrasing things incorrectly, and demanding rather than asking. Her rudeness was inadvertent, due to ignorance of intonation and inflection and a limited vocabulary. Over the years she lost her accent and learned proper grammar and Western etiquette, but somehow that didn’t stop her from criticizing instead of commenting. Dawn’s therapist once suggested that her mother’s criticism was a way of showing love. If that was the case, Dawn deduced, her mother must love her a lot.
Ina placed three capers atop a tiny piece of fish perched on a microscopic schmear of low-fat cream cheese on the scooped-out bagel that she had the waitress rescoop, as it had not been sufficiently scooped to her liking the first time, and she studied her daughter from across the table.
“How's the Cobb salad, dear?” she asked, her rehearsed smile extending only so far after a series of fillers and lifts. “Shrimp instead of chicken? Your father would roll over in his grave.”
“Daddy isn't dead.” Dawn replied. She put down her fork, wiped her mouth with her napkin and looked across the table at her mother. This was going to be a long lunch.
“I'm just saying if he were dead, that’s what he'd be doing. This is much worse, because he’s alive to hear about it.”
“He’s only going to hear about it if you tell him,” Dawn replied.
“Is that bacon?” her mother continued, picking at her Nova platter.
“Why did you invite me to lunch?” Dawn asked her mother, who at seventy-two had skin that was tighter and smoother than her own.
“Can’t I have lunch with my daughter?” she answered a question with a question.
“I know you didn’t ask me for lunch just to criticize my eating habits,” Dawn said. Come to think of it, maybe she did.
“I just find it surprising that after all these years...”
“Mother, give it a rest! I don’t keep kosher. Neither do you.”
“Is that a new suit?” She changed the subject.
Sensing disapproval in her mother’s voice, Dawn took a moment to examine herself. Her skirt was above the knee, but still appropriate in length.
“What is wrong with my suit?”
“Red?” her mother sighed. “It’s a little gauche.”
Dawn clenched her jaw so tight her teeth squeaked. One more lunch with her mother and she’d wind up at the orthodontist. She was no longer hungry.
“Why aren’t you eating? Have you lost weight? You look thin.”
Thin? That was the pot calling the kettle black. Her mother was a toothpick and lived off coffee and bran muffins, the food equivalent to Liquid Plumber. It was no wonder Dawn had suffered from an eating disorder in her teens. She had been in and out of the hospital and therapy, and caused endless grief for her parents, who never understood the part they played in her illness. The doctor had said Dawn’s anorexia was a means of having some control over her life. He never knew the half of it. After ten years of starving herself, Dawn managed to overcome her eating disorder, but she still suffered emotionally, and exposing herself to her mother was like picking a scab that had never fully healed.
“I’ve been the same weight for twenty years,” Dawn said, defensively.
“It’s hard to get pregnant if you are underweight.”
“Who said anything about getting pregnant?”
“You’re getting a little long in the tooth, dear. Women over forty have difficulty conceiving.”
In a few months, Dawn would be forty-three, and she didn’t even have a boyfriend. Her brother, Daniel, was forty-five and married to Melanie, a thirty-seven-year-old blonde shiksa and former Second Runner-Up Miss Arkansas. Dawn’s mother couldn’t get over a traif-laden Cobb salad, but with open arms welcomed Miss Second Runner-Up into her faux Orthodox world when she converted to Judaism, changed her name to Miriam, and subsequently gave birth to blue-eyed towheaded twins – boys, no less. Avram and Mordechai. Who names her son Mordechai? Nearing the end of their terrible twos, the boys were known as Avi and Morrie and were spoiled rotten by their bubbie. Dawn had a tough act to follow, and some days she just wanted to throw in the towel, move far away from her family, and start life over. Truth be told, she had wanted to do that as long as she could remember.