My mother grew up in Rego Park, Queens, New York. She said the developer who named the town got “Rego” from a contraction of “Real Good.” The daughter of strict German immigrants, being raised in the shadow of World War II, she embodied the first-generation ethos of dreams deferred in place of heads-down work. She told me once that she remembered as a young girl watching others play jump rope in a schoolyard washed by late spring sunshine, and thinking, “God can take me now. I’m ready to die.” She’d already given up on a life that stretched before her over terrain that held no promise in her imagination. There’s something haunting about a sense of resignation that runs deeper than despair.
She married a man from Michigan for whom life seemed an easy chore. He was a jumper, not a watcher. He leapt under his own power, unconcerned, ignorant of the eyes of others who observed his play. My mother thought that maybe if she hitched herself to him, she could leave behind the snake that constricted her soul and learn to leap like him. But that’s the thing about snakes: They suffocate their prey and every time you exhale, they squeeze a little more. The more you give, the closer you are to death. And so her free and easy husband kept jumping—from drink to drink, from woman to woman—until one day she swallowed enough pills to stop her breath.
And then I, perhaps about the age she was when she watched those girls jumping, was born into pain. I became her rescuer, finding her on the floor, moaning incoherently. I remember a paramedic shouting into her vomit-smeared face, “Wake up, hon!” Hon, short for honey. A word of affection. But where she grew up, hun was a slur for Germans. My mother lived.
The snake around my own soul tightened that day. But I was the son of both a jumper and a watcher. I carried that snake. I jumped and leapt. I also watched. My mother became my rescuer, supporting me as I too battled thirst . . . and sadness. The terrain of my life brought me to New York, her birthplace, where I learned to reach up and grab the snake by the neck and squeeze with a white-knuckled grip, forcing it to loosen. I won space to breathe, but I’ll never be free of that reptile.
Now I have a son who is going back to Michigan to become a man. Does the snake slither around his soul as well? Is my inheritance also my legacy? Or have I accomplished my dream of holding that greedy serpent fast before it can slither to fresh meat?
I believe my son is a jumper, but not like his grandfather. He also watches, not with separation like his grandmother did on that late spring day in the schoolyard, but with the wisdom of one who learns and grows. He will jump towards, rather than away from, those he loves and those who love him. He is going to college. And my heart is filled with fear—and hope.