My family lived in a working class neighborhood in Ohio, a neighborhood designed for the workers at the Willys Jeep plant. We were the only Jewish family for miles around, and we ended up in the midst of a Catholic enclave.
Mr. and Mrs. Brewer lived on the second floor of the house next door. They had a small balcony where we would see them sitting during the late afternoon sipping cocktails. Mr. Brewer had been a used car salesman but had retired by the time I was a little girl. Mrs. Brewer always seemed to be in a fog. She would smile and drift in and out of focus (both ours and hers).
Mr. Brewer was very particular. He worshipped his car, a Lincoln Continental that he dutifully and lovingly washed and waxed. If there were nothing more to clean on the exterior or interior of the car, he would sweep out the garage until, as my mother would say, you could eat off the floor.
Mr. Brewer was continually perturbed by my brother, sister, and me because we made a lot of noise and stomped all over his lawn, which he took great pains to manicure. He and his landlord put up a fence which ran down the center of their corner lawn to prevent us from crossing it. (Seeing that fence in the center of their lawn was my first brush with the surreal.)
Mr. Brewer also had very little love for our cat “America.”
One day when he was sweeping out the garage for the third time that week, he called me over. I was scared; Mr. Brewer wasn’t one for small talk and usually had some complaint or scolding to deliver.
“Look at what your cat did. Footprints all over the hood of my car. If your cat ever does that again, I will kill him.”
The tears welled up in my eyes. Kill America? I believed he would. I ran home. “Mom, Mom, Mr. Brewer is going to kill our cat!”
I watched as my mother swelled with indignation and that proverbial fury of a mother protecting her young. She seemed to grow taller, stand straighter, and transform herself from an overweight, out-of-shape, make-up-less, wild-haired mom into a knight in shining armour. Her face glowed; fire lit up her eyes. She squinted as if in deep thought, then marched out of the house heading for next door. We scurried after her.
She found Mr. Brewer, of course, polishing the hood of his car. She looked directly into his eyes and said that she heard he had threatened America.
He looked at her, rag in hand, and said slowly and purposefully, “You know, Hitler’s ovens were not big enough.”
At the time I was not sure what he meant by that statement. It seemed totally out of context and confusing. What did all of that have to do with his car and America?
Deliberately, but with great passion, my mother spoke these words, emphasizing each of them with a pointed finger directed close to his face: “IF YOU SO MUCH AS RAISE A HAND TO TOUCH OUR CAT, MAY YOU DROP DEAD!” With that she walked back into our house, the rest of us following.
The next morning, an ambulance pulled up at the Brewers. The paramedics carried Mr. Brewer out on a stretcher. He had had a heart attack during the night and was dead before he reached the hospital.
I remember seeing my mother at the kitchen table, her head in her hands, murmuring, “Jan, do you think I killed him?” I’m not sure what I answered at the time, but I was totally and completely convinced that she had.
My mother had become a real superwoman who could murder with a single pointed remark. In that summer of 1958, in our despondent neighborhood, our mother had become invincible. My brother, sister, and I felt absolutely safe in the refuge of her words.
Besides it was pretty clear we shouldn’t cross her.