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Sheri Leseberg and Melissa Pasanen

Leseberg_Pasanen_RE

Sheri Leseberg
Created using Melissa Pasanen’s story (below) as inspiration

For My Mother
By Melissa Pasanen

I am probably the only person to have been embarrassed by a lychee seed in the London underground. I was ten years old, descending into Earl’s Court station with my mother.  As she enjoyed a fresh lychee on the escalator, she held up the shiny, elliptical seed and mused loudly, “You know, it really looks like the head of a man’s penis, doesn’t it?”

Ours was not a 60s household of open family nudity. I had not yet seen many penises; my little brother’s tiny, pink “willy” didn’t really count. I did know that most mothers rarely spoke of penises to their daughters – and never in the echoing tunnels of the Tube.  My outspoken Jewish-American mom did not much resemble the mothers of my childhood friends, but she did try to give us a proper English upbringing.

Many expat children went to the relaxed, co-ed American School.  My mother, however, sent me to Saint Paul’s School for Girls where I learned to mumble the Lord’s Prayer at daily assembly. At Saint Paul’s, boys were imported only for dancing lessons. Mr. Marshall, the stick insect of a chemistry teacher, and Mr. Galloway, the neolithically shaggy art teacher, did not inspire romantic dreams. Preteen crushes were spent mostly on senior class girls.

Even after an abrupt move into public middle school in northern California, I remained a late bloomer.  The boys never tired of putting on fake English accents and asking me, through guffaws, if they could borrow my rubber to erase a mistake.  My mother was far more disappointed than I was when no one asked me to dance at my first social.

My fragile early teens coincided with the break-up of my parents’ marriage. Mom rediscovered herself through a return to synagogue and lots of therapy, from which she shared more of her epiphanies than was appropriate.  My best friend and I still remember the day she urged us to sleep with any man we might consider marrying.  We giggled awkwardly; we hadn’t even kissed one yet.

At 13, I attended my first Bris, the ritual cutting of the foreskin on a newborn Jewish male.  My baby cousin sucked red wine from the saturated corner of a white linen napkin while a man chanted strange words I recognized vaguely from sporadic attendance at synagogue.  The baby screamed as the man fiddled around his diaper, dabbing up blood with another white linen napkin. My mother reassured me that the baby would never remember the pain.

The pages of Playgirl, shared at freshman play rehearsal in high school, offered my first close look at an adult penis.  Flaccid and thick, it lay on the upper thigh of Burt Reynolds, his eyelashes coyly lowered. It reminded me of the large geoduck clams we dug at the beach each summer.  I couldn’t imagine why I’d ever want to have anything to do with such a thing.

Fumbling explorations with boys in the back of mom’s orange VW bus didn’t do much to dispel this first impression. The pale purple bedroom of my teen years shared a wall and door with the living room.  When Mom arrived home from dates, I smothered myself with a pillow to muffle the sighs of middle-aged make-out sessions. I fled 3,000 miles to college.

There, I became fairly comfortable with penises, after learning the fine art of fellatio from a purebred preppy named Cricket.  Senior year, five girlfriends and I shared a shabby house off-campus next to a slightly shabbier house of six guys.  It was common knowledge that two were uncircumcised: one, a first generation Chinese-American and the other, the son of a former Nazi.  I ended up marrying one of the circumcised ones.  Even though he’s not Jewish, my mother assures me that she likes him.

Most males of my generation, of course, are circumcised. It was the clean, correct choice for most Americans and for many Europeans, despite searing memories of fatal consequences when it was detected. In Paris one year, I boarded with an older woman who recounted a friend’s concern when her Catholic grandson was circumcised in 1975.  “But what if –” she had asked, agitated — “what if the Germans come again?”

Thanks to world wars among other atrocities, I struggle to believe in God. My husband and I don’t belong to any organized religion, although I do throw annual Chanukah latke feasts and invite too many people to Seder.  Each year I call my mother for a refresher on the rules to dreidel and her secret to fluffy matzo balls. We want our children to know where they come from, so they can go back if they choose.

We did circumcise our two sons. When our oldest was born, we gave the question of circumcision very little thought; we simply followed common medical and cultural practice.  Our second son weighed only three pounds at birth and every CC of his blood was counted daily.  Circumcision was a harder decision.  But we did it, we told ourselves, so he’d match his brother and father.

I also did it for my mother, despite the many cheek-flushing moments she has caused me. And for her great-grandmother who lived in a Russian shtetl and whose face stares grimly down from the living room shelf each year onto our glittering Christmas tree.  Every time my mother visits, she leaves behind a trail of Judaica to remind me of my roots: a Havdalah spice box, a Joan Nathan cookbook, a pair of Sabbath candlesticks.  She holds out hope that someday I’ll find myself drawn back to the faith, and if I hadn’t circumcised her grandsons, she’d have no hope left.

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Sheri Leseberg_INSP

Sheri Leseberg
Inspiration piece provided to Melissa Pasanen

In Search Of…
By Melissa Pasanen

Max never mentioned what he did for a living in the online personals he posted. He did update them frequently and nervously, trying to improve the wording and straining to be both honest and appealing like his life coach had counseled.

His latest version read as follows: “Easygoing, creative, unconventional SWM looking for kindred spirit to share laughter, love, and life. I’m tall and slim with red curly hair and sky-blue eyes and ready to settle down now that I’ve hit my 30’s. I love children, animals, and a well-brewed cup of tea. ISO a woman who will appreciate my unique sense of style and humor, is open to the wonder in the world, and won’t mind if things are slightly unpredictable.”

He would dress casually for the first meeting, usually coffee or lunch, low-risk occasions from which it was easy for the woman to take a last gulp of latte or lemonade and say, “It was great to meet you, but I’ve got to get back to work.” By that time, he had likely been obliged to divulge his profession, which tended to result in one of two reactions: “Oh you’re a children’s party magician? How…uh…cute.” Or, “That must be a hard way to make a living…” trailing off into the unspoken implication that he was looking for someone to support him and how could any self-respecting man actually be “Max, the Magic Hatter,” pulling bunnies out of hats and releasing waterfalls of M&M candies from his lace cuffs at the end of every performance.

A few of the less conventional (more desperate?) women had gone on a couple of dates with him, but nothing had lasted. There had been one: Jenny, a painter, who seemed to understand Max and the fact that he was most comfortable when dressed in his deep purple, crushed velvet matching top hat and tails. But she was severely allergic to Wonder, the white rabbit, and the dormouse too, both beloved pets and critical to Max’s show. She couldn’t understand how he could pick them over her but, for Max, it was like telling him he had to give up his children. And so, that was that.

Sometimes when he performed at parties in the self-satisfied suburbs, he’d sneak envious glances at the birthday child’s parents, evidently happily married and secure in their steady and respectable professions as financial analysts, teachers, lawyers, doctors, nonprofit managers, and the like. Of course, there were also the divorced parents shooting barbed glances at the ex who they’d generously allowed to attend their child’s party because they knew that was the right thing to do. These couples reminded Max that he’d better not settle for someone who couldn’t accept him as he was; no good would come of it.

Occasionally Max wondered if he should give up his profession and go for something more normal. He had tried a string of more standard jobs including managing a sub shop and working for a national research company calling people about their preferred brand of dish detergent and other shopping habits. He’d even taken a stand-up comedy workshop thinking that maybe his skills would transfer and knowing that women found comedians sexier than magicians even though it’s all material and they were naïve if they didn’t expect to end up the butt of many jokes. But he was a dismal comedic failure.

Louisa, his life coach, argued that the right woman would come along and that being true to himself was his best strategy. Most days he could believe that and take comfort in the beaming faces and the eager little hands reaching out to gently stroke Wonder’s soft back after the rabbit made his surprise appearance from under the velvet top hat. But then Max would go home to his empty house, heat up a can of ravioli with sauce the color of his hair, put on a Johnny Cash record, and feel sorry for himself.

It was yet another sunny summer Sunday as Max navigated his way through blocks of respectably docile-colored houses to the birthday party of the day. The kids were outside in the giant bouncy thing so the mother showed him the basement play room where he was scheduled after cake and ice cream. He set up his table, draping it carefully with the purple and white checkered cloth and placing his props under it in their precise order. The show went like clockwork as it always did, charming both younger and older members of the audience, although Max did find himself a little distracted by one small girl in the audience. She was sitting front and center, cross-legged, with long pale blonde hair held back by a blue ribbon and he could have sworn that she did not blink through the entire performance. After the show when he let the birthday boy hold Wonder and the other children lined up to pet the rabbit, she held back but looked like she wanted to come forward.

Max walked over to where she was standing and asked, “Did you want to see the rabbit?”

“No thank you,” the girl replied and then opened her mouth as if to say more but hesitated.

“Yes?” said Max.

“Well, I did want to ask you something,” the girl said slowly.

“Yes?” repeated Max encouragingly.

“Are you really the Mad Hatter?” she blurted out, “Because I’m Alice.”

Max was taken by surprise and, for a second, he didn’t know quite how to respond. Alice stared up at him with clear grey eyes, again unblinking. “Well,” he stammered, playing for time, “I do resemble the character a little and, as you can see, I have been inspired by the book to create some of things I do in my show.”

“But are you really the Mad Hatter?” the girl persisted.

“Well, no, Alice,” Max responded carefully, “the Mad Hatter is a character is a wonderful book but you don’t think he’s a real person do you?”

“No, I guess not,” said Alice sadly before she let out a stream of words all in one breath. “I was just hoping maybe you were because my mom, she’s a pastry chef and she’s called the Queen of Tarts, she’s been really grouchy since my dad left and she keeps saying that the only man who can make her happy again is the Mad Hatter…” and she trailed off looking up again at him with that steady grey gaze.

“Well, in that case,” Max said with a slowly broadening smile, feeling all of a sudden more positive about things than he’d felt in years, “perhaps we should all got out to tea and see if together you and I can cheer her up.”

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