When I was in my mid-teens and living in Queens, New York, there were two Donalds around, one I knew and the other I didn’t. Donald McKayle was my modern dance teacher and the other Donald was a kid who lived in our neighborhood and went to the same High School as my brother before getting kicked out for being an intractable bully.
His name was Donald Trump.
Reading the memoir by Mary Trump about her life growing up in the extended Trump family – “Too much and Not Enough” – I find myself in spookily familiar territory. That world still resides in my bones, and my neighbors, mostly second-generation immigrants from Europe, still haunt my dreams. They were mostly Italians, Irish and Germans – and the Russian Jews like us who had come over from the old country just one generation earlier. Our parents were desperate to prosper as Americans after the horrors and deprivations of the Second World War and the deadly “Bomb,” and humor was in short supply. Many of them, still broken by the trauma of growing up poor with frightened parents who barely spoke English, worked hard to prove themselves good Americans who could provide well for their families, whatever it took. Some were better at it than others.
In my family, the men were a desperate lot and the women were furious behind their fur coats. My father pretended to be rich, but wasn’t. He was deep into a debt he kept secret from us until he died before his 50th birthday, leaving us with his piled-up debts behind him. Our particular story of hidden poverty and shame was probably not all that unusual, and manoevering around the law was certainly not uncommon. Papa Trump did it successfully, it seems, racking up his millions by sleight of hand and sitting on huge properties and influence in the boroughs of New York.
His oldest son, Freddy, refused the position of being groomed for his father’s empire, paid dearly for his attempt at independence and died much too young, penniless and alcoholic. That left Donald, the next male offspring in the family in the position to receive the gifts of money and property, making him the major heir to the family fortune.
In my mind I walk those streets again, a wraith from another world quite out of place where I lived. Everything about it rang false to me, and I soaked in the pathos, wishing I were somebody else’s daughter somewhere far away. I longed to dance, but was not allowed to for reasons I never quite understood, although I eventually forced the issue by making my own money babysitting and taking classes with Donnie McKayle when I could slip away.
For the most part I lay low, kept an eye out for my younger siblings and kept my own counsel, and remained more or less intact on the inside. On the outside I was an utter failure – all but flunking out of school, unable to tame my thick black hair and not finding a boyfriend who had any idea what I was talking about.
At night in bed, in my imagination I danced and dreamed of brilliance.
The Queens County of the 1950s was rapidly sprouting with suburbs and housing projects when we arrived there from Brooklyn, part of the first generation after the one “off the boat,” as my parents would say. These Housing Developments – which would make Donald’s wheeler and dealer father a multi-millionaire – was the place many European immigrants moved up to from their first entry points into this country after Ellis Island a generation earlier.
My family was part of this exodus, along with the German Jews fleeing the Holocaust. We mostly kept to our own kind, even in the great mixing pot of the public schools, but my favorite neighbors were the Italians across the street and the old Polish couple who grew tomatoes and carrots in their yard despite being pitied because they “couldn’t afford canned.” My best friend was the Rabbi’s daughter whose family came from the Ukraine, and I was shy around her cultured parents, so different from mine.
Every weekday morning, the men took the Subway trains to work in ‘the city’, and the women stayed home to keep house, play mah jong and take care of the children. On the weekends, I barely knew whose Dad was whose. The world I knew was comprised of women and children, except for the guy who drove the bus and a gang of teenage boys known as the “Black Hawks.”
This pattern was true for the Trump family as well; Papa, a fiercely ambitious man, worked 12 hour days to make his millions (by whatever means, apparently) and Mama, a recent immigrant from an island off the coast of Scotland, stayed home to cook and take care of their children. With her last child, while Donald was still a toddler, she became ill enough to take to her bed and the two youngest were left mostly in the care of nannies. From then on, apparently acting out in rage for the mother-love he was missing, he became a kid impossible to control.
Donald and I both grew up in this world of frustrated women and men dreaming of riches, scheming how to get their share. None of us young folks seemed to have any idea what was going on in the grown-up world, nor did we tend to talk about our parents with our friends. Some of us, like me, went silent and some, like Donald, made sure they got noticed by being either brilliant or Bad. My brother says he was constantly getting into trouble in school until he finally got himself kicked out and sent off to a Military Academy.
I took off for France as soon as I was old enough to run, feeling guilty I wasn’t sticking around to protect my brother and sister; Donald moved up the family ladder, feeding off Papa’s money until he resided in a golden tower in New York City, turning tricks and deals he continued to get away with.
…And the rest is history.
Mary Trump tells the family story in detail from her point of view as Donald’s niece, inluding the story of her father Freddy’s tragic death at the age of 42, describing the funeral parlor and the shock of his loss in vivid detail. It was especially vivid to me because my father also died before he was 50 and we were also in full shock. I could swear, from her descriptions, that the funeral parlor her father was laid out in was the same one my father was laid out in when he died.
I suspect, though, that our Russian-Jewish family created a lot more ruckus there than the Trump family did, as my great-aunt arrived late and barged into the wrong room, yelling for my father! We heard her laments through the walls, her unmistakable hoarse Yiddish coming through loud and clear as she terrified the astounded grieving family next door! It took four of us – her two sons, Herb and me – to rush to the rescue and man-handle her out of there and into the right room where she started all over again, wailing at top voice and staggering towards the open casket to throw herself in on top of my father, beseeching him to wake up and drive her home!
As Donald currently outdoes himself in outrageousness, I remember Aunt Clara and wonder which family wins the prize for outrageous behavior? I’d say, though, that my great-aunt came by her madness honestly, having been born in the generation that fled persecution in Russia, dodging Cossaks who burned down whole villages, raping all the women and slaughtering the men. My great-grandmother escaped by literally running away with her four young daughters hidden beneath her wide skirts. Somehow they made their way to the boat that would get them to America – but the story does not end there, since they were turned back at Ellis Island because one of the sisters had glaucoma! So they had to return to the Old Country and more pogroms, and try again a few years later! Eventually they all made it out of there and onto American soil, but not one of the sisters ever quite recovered either physically or mentally.
Not too surprising.
I come from a line of very crazy heroines who came by their madness honestly! The men hardly stood a chance. The Yiddish word for such women is ‘balleboste.’ For Donald’s family, I cannot speak.
My forebears were desperate people longing for life. Donald’s forbears also must have been, even those who tried to be good Nazi soldiers a generation earlier. In any case, money was a way to put that all behind them and be ‘someone,’ however it was come by. Power was a way to be someone, however it was come by and both madness and fraud in such pursuits were not uncommon, as you might expect. They still aren’t.
But I’m looking for the silver lining here, the place of hope where we all long to be whether we know it or not. I’m searching for an example of the radical resilience that arises when all the chips are down, and things seem at their bleakest but we find a way, anyhow. I know it has to exist!
It does! In fungi.
It turns out that mushrooms in nuclear accident zones have increased melanin and grow dark! The melanin not only detoxifies the toxic radioactive waste, but also benefits it and the surviving life forms around it!
For example, in the “Exclusion Zone” in the area surrounding Chernoble, after the horrific meltdown of its nuclear power plant over 30 years ago, the ecosystem has rebounded into a natural wildlife refuge for native species, some not seen there in centuries. There are bison, moose, lynx, boars, wolves, dogs, birds, insects…
Some scientists conclude, perhaps tongue in cheek, that for some animals, humans may be more dangerous than radioactivity!
This ability to not only overcome adversity, but also to use it to grow stronger in some unexpected direction, is now called ‘radical resilience’ and is a testament to Life’s ability to not only heal, but to grow stronger after having to deal with adversity. The tougher the curriculum, the more creative we get. That’s our work, I wager, getting burned until we figure out how to use the fire in ways we’ve not yet dreamed of.
And there’s a kid from my old neighborhood out there who is pushing us in that direction, whether he means to or not. We can fight him, sure, but some of us can use that energy to get creative and make some big changes that have been needing attention for a very long time. It may be now or never.
If the puppies in Chernoble can do it, why not us?