Unlike many recent childhood memoirs that capitalize on dysfunction, Linda Rosenkrantz’s My Life as a List: 207 Things About My (Bronx) Childhood does not deal with tragedy, poverty, drug abuse, satanic cults, pedophilia, harrowing family secrets, or depraved parents. Instead, the author, a native of The Bronx, New York, employs gusto and verve to mix together, within a mere 207 paragraph-sized reminiscence, a hodgepodge of childhood minutiae. Difficult to categorize, and specific to those who grew up in the decades surrounding World War II in the close-knit Jewish communities of The Bronx and Brooklyn, these “paragraphs” comprise an engaging and eclectic inventory of the author’s recollections of her first twelve years of childhood. For instance, she recalls her mother opening a bar of (Hershey’s? Nestlé’s?) milk chocolate to find it crawling with ants, getting scabs on her knees from roller skating, hiding under the bed at the Jewish Community Center of Poughkeepsie summer camp, having her tonsils removed, and, humiliation of humiliations, being put in a crib at age four. These recollections will appeal primarily to those American generations who lived through the Depression, World War II, and Hollywood’s golden era of motion pictures.
An assortment of family, friends, and neighbors play the predominant role in forming young Linda’s life. Next to the narrator, the mother is the book’s most developed, well- rounded “character,” one readers could easily visualize on the stage. One of those women who never has a cold, Linda’s mother never sits down except to eat or sew. Constantly on the go, she files magazine articles under topics such as animals and birds, famous people, and foreign countries, in preparation for her daughter’s school reports. “Nice research work,” the teachers always remark. She makes puppets out of peanuts and sews tiny dresses for them. She buys six school dresses at a time at the local department store, has her daughter try them on after school, returns five the next day, and starts the process over again. She sews incessantly, making sure her daughter never has to repeat wearing an outfit all term and explains to her curious youngster that her own breasts are floppy because in her youth she used to bind them so she could be a flat-chested flapper. The young narrator realizes fully that if she waits long enough (stalls), her mother will do anything for her, and that if she cannot find the words she needs, her mother will ultimately find them for her. At one point in the book the author astutely observes the symbiotic relationship she shares with her mother.
Compared with the mother, the narrator’s father remains vague, shadowy, but nonetheless interesting because he incites the reader’s curiosity. Referred to as “the mayor of 37th Street,” he is in the fur-buying business, never learns to swim, does not close the door fully when he uses the bathroom, hands his paycheck over to his wife, smokes unfiltered Chesterfields, reads The World Telegram and the Post, and enjoys movie stars Joan Blondell and Ann Sothern. A klutzy dancer, he always sneezes precisely ten times and gives his daughter a penny for every word she fills in on the Sunday New York Times crossword puzzle.
The author’s close-knit extended family also has a major impact on the young narrator: her grandfather (Zada) who, when long ago offered two sisters to marry, said, “I’ll take the fat one”; her grandmother, who advises her never to stay in the tub after the water starts draining out (the dirt comes back on). This is the same grandmother (Bubba) who had four sisters and a fifth whose name was never spoken. The author’s aunts (all of whom float, but none of whom swim) include Celia, who turned into a bitter woman when her father forced her to marry an older, almost illiterate, cigar-chomping vegetable peddler, and Pauline, who read thick novels like War and Peace and related them in great detail. Another stubble-chinned aunt married a wisecracking cabdriver named Milton. The uncles are just as colorful and endearing: Uncle Al, who married three shiksa wives; Uncle Charlie, who bought a farm sight unseen with an eight- hundred-dollar insurance settlement; Uncle Harry, who was afraid to be alone and would not allow his wife to leave him at night; Uncle Eddie, who drove at one hundred miles an hour in the seafoam-green Pontiac he bought after his discharge from the army. Numbered among her friends and acquaintances are a neighbor who punches tiny holes in her husband’s condoms in order to conceive a second child and the sad-eyed accordion teacher, paralyzed by polio, who...
(The entire section is 1908 words.)