The Joke’s on Me


The cherry-red convertible and I bounced down the excuse for a road leading to my mother’s bed and breakfast. This was not the most pleasant car trip I’d ever taken, and by the time I got to Woodstock, “bed” and “breakfast” were the only two things I wanted to see, besides a bathroom with a locking door. Unfortunately, when I pulled into the gravel parking lot, there was no room at the inn. The lot overflowed with old Volvos wearing rust spots and bumper stickers like “Free Tibet” and “My Other Car is a Broom.”

Ugh. I probably should have called first. Too bad my cell phone was somewhere at the bottom of the Pacific, along with everything else I owned. If I’d known my sister’s aging hippie friends were visiting, I would have killed some time in town, nursed a few gallons of coffee, and tried to avoid people who might recognize me. Especially people who might talk to their companions about me in the third person, adding, “Even when she was a bitty thing, we knew our Frankie was going to be a movie star.”

Double ugh. I couldn’t face that. I couldn’t even face my sister, Jude the Magnificent. Or worse, my mother. In my head I tumbled around the Goldberg family version of “rock, paper, scissors.” Life pounds Frankie. Nothing beats Jude. Jude cuts Frankie. Mom-guilt covers all.

I lose, again.

So, with a heavy, road-weary sigh, I nosed my Corvette into a muddy patch of grass between an old maple tree and the Hoffman’s fence, cut the engine, and cast my bloodshot gaze in the general direction of the house, seeing only its moss-green roof shingles. Hmm. I knew how to sneak in without getting caught; as a teen it was one of my more accomplished extracurricular activities. Even in my current addled state, I knew pulling that move would only prolong the agony.

I opened the door, sighed again, and looked down at my cashmere skirt, spray-tanned legs, and beloved Jimmy Choos. A stroll through the gravel lot would probably be the death of them, but that was the least of my problems. Foregoing the hair-and-makeup check in the rear view mirror, I tippy-toed my way through the assemblage of politically-, socially-, and environmentally-correct vehicles in the parking area. Then down the bluestone path leading to Oz, up three stairs to the front porch, and eased open the door.

Wait just a patchouli-picking minute, my nose told me. This was no longer my parents’ bed and breakfast. I didn’t remember the smell of incense from any of the nice Jewish families we boarded in the ’70s. Or the sound of New Age music, like whales calving in a sea of oil. Then I spotted Jude. In my mother’s living room, sitting on the floor in a circle with a dozen or so other fiftyish women, wearing only garlands of flowers and beatific smiles.


There’s an unwritten law in Hollywood that if your flesh is less than perfect, you’re supposed to keep it to yourself. No thong bikinis, no plunge-to-Tijuana, and no sitting around my mother’s living room naked with a dozen of your closest friends gloriously doing the same.

After so many years of exposure to nothing but firm flesh, or surgical approximations thereof, I wasn’t prepared to see so much of the natural aging process at work. Especially not at 10:00 a.m. on a Saturday morning, after I’d driven two thousand miles and had several sleep-deprived nights, without a single alcoholic beverage to alter my reality.

Besides the incense, whale tunes, and naked women (some diving for cover at my entrance), it was still my mother’s living room. Lace doilies lounged on the arms of pea-green, velour sofas, fussy lamps stood at attention, and uncomfortable ladder-backed chairs were made only slightly less uncomfortable courtesy of the same hand-needlepoint pillows she’d had since our split-level in North Babylon. All of it, from doily to pillow, had been pushed aside to accommodate Jude’s tribe of middle-aged wood nymphs.

My mother would have plotzed.

Put some clothes on, for God’s sake; you’ll all catch your deaths.

Often morphing into Sylvia Goldberg under duress, I might have done the same, but several factors stopped me. One, I was an uninvited intruder upon this unusual bit of New Age self-expression and had no right to claim indignation; two, I was too exhausted to care; and three, Jude beat me to the punch with a single withering look, the look burned upon my retinas as a toddler when I’d toddled into rooms I wasn’t welcome in.

“I’m sorry for the interruption,” she told her clothing-optional charges in a lilting tone while untangling herself from the floor. “This is a safe place. Focus on your breathing. Bathe in the life force.”

Meanwhile, I hid in the kitchen, where I hoped Jude had some coffee. Although with her rapidly evolving political stances, what she had in the cupboards was anybody’s guess.

Jude burst in, tightening the belt of an unbleached cotton robe. Her large, soft body had to have grown thirty pounds more Rubenesque since my last visit. I could have been wrong; all those size-zeroes in Hollywood may have skewed my perception. She looked like she couldn’t decide if she wanted to hug me or slap me. She settled on neither and stared, stared, and stared, with those deep-set, judging eyes.

“You look terrible.” She pushed back a handful of salt-and-pepper curls, which fell in a perfect shampoo-commercial cascade over her shoulders. Why was she blessed with the manageable locks? Jude, who could rail on for hours about the media-manufactured trappings of femininity, got the good hair gene. “Are you in trouble?”

I smiled sweetly. “No. Just thought I’d dress up like Martha Stewart and drop in for a visit on a whim.”

She gave me a look that knew better. Our visits were carefully orchestrated diplomatic events, often initiated by my nephew. The UN had an easier time getting people to the table.

I relented. “Okay. A little trouble. Nothing major. I didn’t kill anyone. I just need a place to stay a while and regroup. And, you know, see Mom, of course.”

“Of course.” She nodded, brow still furrowed with suspicion. “All right. We’ll talk, but this is really not a good time.”

She leaned toward the living room. “Deep breaths. Imagine feeling the warmth of the sun penetrating your skin like Goddess Earth.”

I cocked my head at her. She nodded, waving a hand. “We’re welcoming the vernal equinox and the renewal of the earth. It’s a goddess ritual weekend.” She said this as nonchalantly as Mom would have said, “Just me and the neighbor ladies exchanging recipes.”

Although I doubted Sylvia Goldberg ever had a coffee klatch with the local women in the nude, doing deep breathing exercises, and letting the sun warm their tired, old bones. Heck, what did I know back then? I was in school six hours a day. All I saw was a proficient, yet slightly tired and menopausal Jewish mother at the stove, in her garden, behind the sewing machine, or pushing up her reading glasses and yelling at my father. It was Woodstock in the 1970s; she could have been selling pot out the back door for pin money for all I knew.

“After this, we’re hitting the sweat lodge,” Jude said. “You’re welcome to join us. You look like you could use it.”

I didn’t especially care for sweating with strangers. “I think I just need some sleep.”

“Take Sylvia’s room.” My sister waved a hand, as if to spirit me up the stairs. “It’s the only one vacant.”

Vacant. Vacant? “You already moved her?”

Jude looked at me as if I’d just teleported in from Mars. “Yes, Frankie. I already moved her. You apparently didn’t think it was important enough to get involved in choices we should have both been making about our mother’s health. If you had seen her, if you had any inkling of what Ethan and I have been going through, you would have known I had no other alternative.”

Vacant. I knew that. Jude left a message on my answering machine in Malibu. I hadn’t called her back. I hadn’t wanted to know.

“We can talk about this later,” Jude said.

Vacant. My mother was in a nursing home. It weighed upon me like a tribe of fat naked women. It smothered me.

“Honestly, I didn’t know what to think when you stopped returning my messages. I’m relieved to see you, at least. I was worried that you’d dropped off the face of the earth.”

Then she returned to her charges, shedding her robe as she walked, her huge, dimpled rump welcoming the return of spring.

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4 thoughts on “The Joke’s on Me

  1. Tee says:

    Enjoyed reading your information. I wish we had time to chat. I would really like to know more about your journey to publication of your novel. I’m a freelance writer and a blogger too. I’ve written my first young adult novel, not yet published, and I’m working on my second. I’m always looking for advice.

    Good luck on the next chapter of your writing journey.

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