Arts & Culture

A Jewish Gymnast’s Balancing Act

An excerpt from Dvora Meyers’ new e-book of essays, ‘Heresy on the High Beam: Confessions of an Unbalanced Jewess’ Read More

By / May 7, 2012
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The following is excerpted from Heresy on the High Beam: Confessions of an Unbalanced Jewess, by Dvora Meyers.

As I recall my doll charades, I color slightly with embarrassment. Not because my nine-year-old self imagined her dolls to be gymnasts, or that she talked for them (and to herself as a result) for way longer than Jean Piaget would have considered normal, developmentally speaking. I cringe for the same reason I feel some shame whenever I admit that the first cassette I independently chose and paid for with my allowance earnings was a Paula Abdul album. I am embarrassed that I chose Kim Zmeskal as my first gymnastics idol. She is not necessarily the gymnastics fan’s gymnast, the way Celine Dion or Kenny G are not the music lover’s favorite artists. Zmeskal was not elegant like the former Soviets she competed against. Short and stocky, she had power and performed her skills with amplitude. But she was hardly an artist like Svetlana Boginskaya. Or a trickster like Tatiana Gutsu. And more than a decade later, when I finally got the chance to watch her routines from the 1991 World Championships, at which she won her biggest title, the women’s all-around, I concluded she benefited from the home court advantage since the competition was domestically held. I have become a gymnastics hipster, favoring the gymnasts no one really knows about. To those with just Olympic year knowledge of the sport, which at last count was about 99.99 percent of the world, I say “They don’t really show her routines on NBC, which is so unfair,” in much the same tone a Williamsburg kid would say, “Well, you wouldn’t have heard them on the radio.”

I didn’t learn about Kim Zmeskal from the radio or even the television. The majority of my pre-Olympic information came from a profile in Barbie magazine. That a female gymnast, too young to vote and controlled by Svengali-like coaches, a flesh and blood doll if you will, would be interviewed in a magazine used to shill Mattel products represented the best of synergistic thinking. I saw nothing wrong with adult control—like most kids, I knew nothing outside of it. And I longed for talent such as Zmeskal’s, the kind that would make a coach push me hard instead of simply telling me to do my best. My best so far was a cartwheel on the high balance beam, a skill too basic even for my Barbie dolls. (Also, they couldn’t do horizontal splits, which are essential to proper cartwheel form.)

At the Shabbat table, I rattled off the Barbie article, practically verbatim, for my mother and sister. “Kim is very dedicated. She trains six hours a day. Can you believe it?!” The editors of Barbie favored exclamatory statements and I intoned them in my speech.

“Her coach is Bela Karoyli, the same person who taught Nadia Comaneci!” I said, also filling them in on exactly who Nadia was and what her significance to the sport had been. “First perfect ten,” I told them. I spun around in the black vinyl chair.

“I remember that,” my mom said, good-naturedly playing along.

“Kim’s gymnastics idol is Mary Lou Retton, the first American woman to win an all-around gold medal at an Olympic Games!”

“Did you know that Kim is the only woman who does three whip backs to an immediate double back somersault?” My mouth was full of challah. Lisa rolled her eyes and tossed back her long dark hair.

“Kim is definitely the best gymnast in the United States right now. She’s going to win the Olympic all-around title, for sure!” This last was completely mine. The editors of Barbie dared not prophesize in such a fashion more than two months before the Games. They were journalists after all.

I prepared myself for the upcoming Olympics by constructing a Kim Zmeskal shrine on the back of my bedroom door with pictures from the magazine and doing handstands as a way of appeasing the gymnastics gods. But my mother, seemingly oblivious to thuds coming from my room, was getting me ready for overnight camp. She hummed Israeli folk tunes to herself as she folded several weeks’ worth of shirts and jean skirts and placed them in a duffle bag.

I looked on in horror. If not from a seat in the Palau Sant Jordi, I was expecting to watch the competition from the living room carpet. But camp and competition schedules overlapped. In Orthodox Jewish legal philosophy, a medical emergency defers observance of the Sabbath. Practically, this means that one is permitted to do anything typically forbidden on Shabbos—brushing your teeth, heating hot water or riding in an ambulance—if it means saving a person’s life. The Olympics constituted such an emergency to me. I thought it should defer my camp attendance until the following summer.

“Do you really plan to miss six weeks of camp to watch two weeks of television?” My mother smugly folded her arms across her chest. She thought hers was a rhetorical question, that she had bested her nine-year-old daughter. Her tragic error was having faith in my ability to be reasonable.
“Yes!” I made a grab for some of my tees and dropped them, one by one, as I ran up the stairs to my bedroom.

“Well, if you don’t go to camp, you’re not going to visit your father in Miami!” she yelled after me. I slammed my door and faced the Kim shrine. My favorite picture was of Kim’s signature move on the balance beam. In it, she grasped the apparatus with two hands and pressed into in a reverse planche, her back grotesquely arched while her chest pressed backwards and her toes reached forward, glued together and parallel to the apparatus. And then, like a wink, she bent her right leg, pointing it downward. It was still attached to the left one at the knee. I got down on the floor and pressed my body up into a bridge, tightening my gluteal muscles and pushing my rib cage back. My hands were just a few inches from the yellow wall and I was trying to get my chest to kiss it. That’s how my gymnastics coach put it. Girls, kiss the wall. Hug the wall. Love the wall. As a line of bodies, we strained to do just that. Alone in my room, I held the position until it hurt. And then I held it for a few seconds longer. I was supposed to hurt. That was what my coach told me. In gymnastics, pain was not in my head. It was not punishment. It was process.

After a few minutes spent shaped like a bell, my arms began to shake and I collapsed to the linoleum with a thud. As if on cue, my mother came trundling up the stairs, threw my door open and flung the shirts I had dropped onto my abdomen. I let out a deep groan of relief. I got off easy this time.

Other times, she tossed my clothing from the second floor window as though I were an unfaithful lover, not her youngest daughter. Her temper was usually triggered by some rude or disrespectful word from me, a burgeoning smart aleck.

“Why are you punishing me?” she asked. “I do the work of a mother and a father.” She wasn’t the only one expected to do more than the norm. As a child in that situation, I was expected to be better behaved than other kids my age because all of my misdeeds were viewed through the frame of divorce and abandonment. I wasn’t being rude in an age-appropriate way; I was “acting out” because I was angry at my mother for staying or my dad for leaving or some combination thereof. At any hint of ungratefulness, she liked to remind me that my father had fled. “But I’m the one who stayed!” as though my typically childish behavior would’ve been less egregious had it been divided equally between two parents.
What my mother didn’t know was that I was actually slavishly grateful to her for staying and caring for us, as though this was something extraordinary. When one parent withdraws his presence and care, you realize that all bets are off. Your parents don’t have to raise you, shelter you, clothe you, feed you. They can opt out. When one chooses to leave and another remains, you love the one who stays not merely for being your parent but for all the things they do for you. The unconditional love you’re supposed to feel for the other takes on a transactional quality. That I didn’t act out my gratefulness immediately was because I was still adjusting. It took me awhile to fully grasp the complicated emotional arithmetic that had replaced the earlier two parent familial equation.

In those dramatic altercations, my mother would eventually simmer down and retrieve my clothing from the lawn. I had just two uniform skirts and would not be able to go to school the next morning if she left them out there soaking up the moisture and mud. “Someone might steal them,” I told her though I couldn’t imagine who would want a plaid skirt. It would be far too long and chaste for the Italian Catholic schoolgirls in the neighborhood. I smirked as my mother trudged into the night to pick up my clothing, hanging it in the bathroom so it would be dry by the next morning.

“She’s just like her father,” my aunt would tell her younger sister. We were at her house. I was alone at the table with them. My sister was in the living room reading a book. “Angry all the time. Nothing is ever good enough. That’s what ruined the marriage. If I were you, I wouldn’t put up with it.” My mother nodded as if to say “Amen, sister” to all of it. I slid under the Shabbat table and was slithering around the legs when my aunt pulled aside the tablecloth.

“You’re lucky that I’m not your mother,” she advised me, wagging a finger in my face. I looked away, finally feeling that anger she was going on about. If only I had known at the time that her middle son had taken his youngest brother to a Grateful Dead concert while high on Quaaludes. My aunt certainly could preach it.

It was my late uncle who had been the disciplinarian in the family, beating the boys for improperly performed Jewish rituals and low test scores. My aunt passively stood aside and let it happen. Perhaps that’s what she meant when she said, “You’re lucky I’m not your mother.” My mother had run interference on behalf of her nephews, one time barricading herself in the bathroom with the eldest during the Passover Seder, threatening not to come out until her brother-in-law backed down. She would surely not lay a finger on me.

But my dolls were less fortunate. One warm night, my mother threw my Baby Rainbow Brite doll out of my second story bedroom window after tripping over when she entered my room to put laundry away. The doll bounced on the red porch awning before falling into our front yard. I barreled down the indoor stairs and then the outdoor ones. I found her lying in a dark patch of grass, her bright pink hair wet, but otherwise unharmed. My window still shone and my mother stuck her head out into the night, readying to send more of my stuff down.

She wound up her pitching arm and prepared to hurl my She-Ra and Pizzazz and the rest of my Barbie doll collection charged with the accident. I started screaming, alerting the neighbors to the spectacle. I didn’t want their help or attention, but I couldn’t stop myself. These dolls were more fragile than Baby Brite, who had a thick plastic head and soft lower body. The dolls in my mother’s hands were my gymnasts. They practiced for hours and were beat up from the demands of the sport. They would not survive the fall. Holding Baby Brite to my chest, I screamed. “Please, Mommy! I’m sorry!”

My mother stared down at me. The snot was pouring from my nose, though in the dark she probably couldn’t see that. Perhaps the only thing visible was Baby Brite’s pink yarn hair and the shadow of a daughter holding her. My mother rested my Barbies on the sill and disappeared from the window. I sat on the red-ridged bricks, caressing the doll. Earlier in the week, I had practiced round-offs on those bricks, pretending it was a makeshift beam, with my neighborhood friend late into the June night. On a final attempt, I crashed chest first into the jagged edges. Sarah was about to run and alert my mother but I stopped her. I was fine, I reassured her after sticking my head inside my t-shirt like a turtle pulling back into its shell. All I could see were a few shallow scrapes and blood droplets. I held my shirt away from my rib cage so it wouldn’t stain. For the next few days, I furtively dressed and undressed, wrapping my towel tightly around my chest before I left the bathroom after the shower. The cuts were now scabbed over and soon would be gone without my mother ever being the wiser, one misdeed of mine she would never find out about, something she couldn’t toss in my face if not out the window.

But on the night of the defenestrated doll, I cried. I continued to do so alone on the bricks until my sister joined me. She began wiping dirt from Baby Brite, acting uncommonly affectionate towards me. Lisa was a slip of a person, both in frame and personality. Though she was nearly eight years my senior, I could wear the clothing she passed down to me after three or four years. She was also much quieter than me and my mother, and tended to stay out of our way. Lisa kept to her room, her books, and the black and white television on which she watched soap operas while my mother and I exploded around her.

With her car keys in hand, my mother threw the screen door aside and stormed down the outside stairs. I clutched my doll tighter. “I need to drive around the block,” she told Lisa. “I’m so angry at this one, I hope I don’t drive into a wall and die.” Crying already, I brought out hysterics to match hers, grabbing her wrist and begging her not to go. I believed that she was going to do what she threatened, that she was going to take the navy Mazda 626 and slam it into the brick barrier at the end of the community driveway, just as I believed her every time she threatened to crash into the lamppost when I annoyed her from the backseat. She shook me free and to Lisa, she added, “Make sure she’s out of my sight when I get back.” My mother pulled away in the car that used to belong to my father. Between me and the car, she couldn’t escape her ex-husband.

I was in my room with my posters and dolls when I heard the defective muffler hum in the driveway behind our house. Hours later, after I tucked myself under my Smurfs comforter, my mother cracked my bedroom door. She was illuminated by my night-light. “Good, you’re in bed.” She ventured towards me and pulled my comforter up to my neck and brushed the bangs from my forehead. “Dvora, I know you’re a good kid. You just make me so angry.” Her voice trailed off and she smoothed my quilt. She looked at me, perhaps expecting a similar acknowledgment, but I pretended to sleep. You’re a good mother, she wanted me to say, and I know that you’re not really angry at me. Except that I thought she was. I wished instead to be living with my father in Florida. I had been told that he was too ill to care for me, both by him and my mother, but after spending months as the object of her wrath, I thought I could stand care that was a little less robust.

Heresy on the High Beam: Confessions of an Unbalanced Jewess is available at Amazon.com, with art by Margarita Korol. Join Dvora at her book launch party tonight at Hansons Dry in Brooklyn.

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