Tuesday, March 10, 2020

Clara's Scrapbook: Webbed Fingers*


I was born with webbed fingers and my immigrant mother was sure she had been punished by the evil eye for having left her mother Rosa Menkes in the “old country” at age eighteen, to come to America. Mother believed this even though Rosa insisted that she leave because pogroms against the Jews were getting worse.

I was the fourth child born to my young immigrant mother in six years. Her eldest two daughters, Mary 4 ½ and Rose 3, were finally able to watch out for each other. But her only son George was not yet 2.

I was born at home, in our cold-water flat on Chicago’s Jewish West side. The midwife announced, “It’s a girl!” Mother must have been disappointed that I wasn’t a second son, but I was healthy – wasn’t I? After the compulsory cutting of the cord and the slap on my tiny behind to get me breathing, the midwife counted my fingers and toes and it became apparent that the evil eye was present.

My tiny hands might have been closed into fists and if so, the midwife would have gently opened them and seen a pinkie finger, a tiny mass of finger/bone/skin and a thumb. The index, middle, and ring fingers were conjoined; the same with my other hand. Conjoined! Even if the midwife was familiar with this condition, she most likely would not have said it out loud to my exhausted mother. Perhaps nothing was said and there was some surreptitious pointing, or the midwife quickly wrapped me up in a blanket and handed me to Mother and figured that the awful truth would come out later.

My fingers were joined each to the next by a thin layer of skin, like the webbing you see between the bones in a bat’s wing. Each of my webbed fingers had two joints, not the “normal” three.

As early as 1902 surgery was being done to separate conjoined/webbed fingers . Some years later, it became the practice to do the surgery on children between 6 months and 2 years old. I must have had the surgery as a young child because my earliest memories, from age four or five, are of having ten fingers. But on each hand there were three stubby fingers, a few with nails, others without.  

It was my reality and I never asked nor did the family ever talk about my fingers. I’m sure the kids in the neighborhood and at school made fun of me. I don’t remember, or more likely I repressed the memories. I’d rather imagine that friends and strangers instead looked away and no one asked due to fear, embarrassment, politeness, whatever.

With my ten fingers, I can do most everything anyone else can including writing a readable script and typing the manuscript for this book! And still to this day, no one asks or talks about my fingers, which I must admit look a bit odd.

My fingers were the first of many disappointments Mother had with me. For her entire life I remained a single working woman and a dreamer, and as Mother frequently reminded me I never did anything she could kvell about to her family and friends.

It was sad very sad for me and Mother and for our relationship. I’ll get into the details along the way, but for now I’ll end my finger saga with an assessment of the two of us that I wrote in my journal in 1982, “I inherited my mother’s uncertain nervous system. In fact, a teacher, in about my second grade told me to tell my mother I was a ‘nervous wreck.’ And I did.”

Those who have known me a long time would tell you that I often get “nervoused up” over little and big things. But please don’t worry. To quote from that wonderful lyricist Steven Sondheim:

Good times and bum times
I've seen them all and, my dear
I'm still here

Yes my dears, I’m still here!

I finally married at age 53, two years after Mother died. In Dixon, Illinois, where I live with my husband Rolland Metzger, I’m a minor celebrity: a published writer, a newspaper reporter, and a gad-about who tries (and sometimes succeeds) in helping my fellow Dixonians with their life-problems.


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*Note: This is another story from Clara’s Scrapbook: An Imagined Memoir Inspired by the Life of  Claire LeBrint Metzger.  At this time Clara's memoir ian on-going work in progress by Claire's niece Betsy Fuchs. Claire, the narrator of these imagined stories, writes them at age 80 in 1994 .


The Clara Stories are dedicated to
Claire LeBrint Metzger, of blessed memory 

b 1914 - d 2002