AT ROSCOE

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[A story.]

In the summer of 1937, Anna and her mother and father went away to a place in the Catskills called Roscoe. It was during the two weeks her father didn’t have to work. Anna was six. There was a big main building with rooms for guests and a dining room where everyone had meals and also a lounge where grownups played cards, checkers and chess, and listened to the radio and talked after dinner. The swimming pool was on the lawn behind the main building; it had a shallow end for children, and all around it were places to sit and lie in the sun. There were also two much smaller buildings down a slope on the right called Annex A and Annex B; they had only guest rooms in them. Anna and her parents were in a room in Annex A because it was a little cheaper than the rooms in the main building, which each had a private bathroom. The two Annexes had only one bathroom to a floor. But each room in an Annex had its own little sink for light washing up, so sharing a bathroom wasn’t so bad, said Anna’s mother.

The Pool

If you got tired of swimming and sunning at Roscoe, you could go for a stroll to the village in the late afternoon, when it was cooler. In the village was a little store with a wooden floor where Anna’s mother and father would have iced coffee and buy Anna an ice cream cone. But most of the time they stayed beside the pool, where her mother put lotion on herself so as to tan instead of burn, and chatted a bit with other ladies. Her father didn’t use lotion; he sat under an umbrella and had lively conversations with other husbands.

After Anna came out of the children’s end of the pool, she would spread her towel on the grass to hear what was going on. Usually she settled near her mother, because she didn’t understand what the men talked about, like how President Roosevelt had saved us and the bad things that were going on in Germany. But sometimes she found a shady spot near her father’s chair, and that felt better than getting sweaty in the sun where her mother was, even if she couldn’t follow the conversation.

Soon she began to notice that not all the ladies stayed in the sun. When her father was talking, a few of them always moved over to listen. “Your father is such a wonderful raconteur,” said one of these ladies to Anna. “What a lucky little girl you are!”

 Divorcee

The guests at Roscoe were all married to each other except for one lady who wasn’t married any more, although once upon a time she had been. Anna was sorry for her at first because she was the only one without a husband, but the other ladies seemed not to like her. They especially disliked the way her bathing suits showed off the tops of her big boobies, which didn’t droop even a little bit. She also wore makeup all the time, even to the pool. And when she walked, her behind wiggled from side to side. Whenever this lady went to sit under a pool umbrella where the men were, the ladies who stayed behind in the sun near Anna’s mother would talk about her — in soft voices, so she wouldn’t hear.

 Luck

A man sitting by the pool said to Anna’s father that nothing was like it used to be and nowadays you sure needed luck to get by. Anna’s father said, “I’ve got news for you, mister. You always needed luck.” Then he told a story about coming to America with Anna’s mother.

The story took place a long time ago, before Anna was born. Her father and mother were in a big city called Constantinople, in a country called Turkey. They had arrived there on a ship from Russia. Then they needed special papers from the United States in order to get to New York on another ship. But there was a problem. A very powerful third country called England wanted to keep ships from coming in or going out of Constantinople because Constantinople was the only way in or out of Russia by water, and England didn’t like what was happening in Russia. (What was happening was that it wasn’t Russia any more; it had recently become the Soviet Union.) England had many warships, and could do what it wanted, said Anna’s father.   So Anna’s father and mother needed to get those papers very fast, before England decided to act.

“Anyway,” said Anna’s father, “the United States had an office in Constantinople where doctors gave health inspections to anyone wanting to come to America. If you were healthy you could come, but if even a little something was wrong — then you couldn’t, until you went to another doctor and were treated for whatever was wrong with you. Which of course took time. And money.”

“Why was that?” asked a lady who was listening intently. “If it was just a little something?” It was the lady with the big boobies, who had no husband.

“Well,” said Anna’s father, who seemed not to mind being interrupted. “Those doctors in Constantinople weren’t American doctors, who can fix you up one, two, three. No siree! They were Turkish doctors. Out for all they could get!”

Anna’s father went on with his story. He and Anna’s mother arrived at the health inspection office early so he could look around. At the front of the nearly empty waiting room he saw a chair and a small writing table that held two saucers filled with colored buttons — red buttons in one, black in the other. Behind the table he also saw several open medical examination rooms. He didn’t know what the buttons were for, but he put a few of each color in his pockets.

Soon the waiting room filled up and an official-looking person arrived, carrying a big leather-bound book. This person settled himself at the table with the buttons, took out two rubber stamps and a stamp pad, and began to call names from his big book for the health inspections: man’s name, woman’s name, man’s name, woman’s name. Anna’s father heard his name and then her mother’s. The person at the table motioned Anna’s mother into one of the examination rooms and her father into the other. “As soon as my examination was over — and it was very quick, let me tell you,” said Anna’s father, ” the doctor gave me a black button and said I could leave. But when Masha came out of her examination room, she had a red button in her hand! What did that mean? Which color meant yes? Which color meant no?” Anna’s father paused for dramatic effect. “How could I know? What I did know was that — red or black — we should stay together. So I took away Masha’s red button and gave her a black one from my pocket. Then we went together to the official with the rubber stamps. He looked at our black buttons and stamped our papers: ‘Approved.’ We made it onto the last boat out of Constantinople.”

“Oh, that was luck!” said the lady with the big boobies. “Except why did they give Masha a red button?”

“Masha still had long hair,” explained Anna’s father. “They told her she had lice. Of course she didn’t. It was a scam. I later heard that they said that to every woman with long hair. The treatment by another doctor would then cost fifty dollars, which the two Turkish doctors would split.”

On the way back to their room in Annex A, Anna told her mother what she had just heard about the red and black buttons. Suppose her father had guessed wrong? Would he have come to the United States alone? Would her mother have had to go back to Russia?

“Don’t think about that story,” said Anna’s mother.

“Why not?” asked Anna. “It was a lucky guess about the buttons, wasn’t it?”

“Maybe it was, maybe it wasn’t,” said her mother. But she wouldn’t explain what she meant.

 In Annex A

Anna’s father liked to play chess. So did some of the other men at Roscoe.   Mostly they played after dinner in the evenings, but one afternoon after lunch (which you could eat in a bathing suit with just a shirt or robe over it), Anna’s father said it was too hot for him by the pool and he was going to look for a chess game in the lounge. Anna’s mother went back to her blanket and towels on the grass where the women she was friendly with usually sat, and Anna jumped back into the pool. But she had drunk a lot of water and lemonade at lunch, and soon she needed to go. What a bother! It would have been so easy to do it in the pool; no one could see if you stood in water up to your waist. That was wrong though, Anna’s mother had said, because other people used the pool too, and some of the other children even swallowed the water by accident. So Anna dutifully pulled herself up out of the shallow end, told her mother she was going to the bathroom, and hurried along the path to Annex A.

The Annex was dark and still. The maids did the vacuuming and made the beds in the morning; Anna thought now she might be the only one in the building. She and her parents had one of the two front guest rooms on the second floor. Up the stairs she went, as fast as she could. The bathroom on that floor was at the other end of the hall, between the two back guest rooms. She squeezed her thighs together so as not to have an accident. And then — oh dear! — the bathroom door wouldn’t open.

“Hello,” she called, rattling the doorknob. “Is someone in there?”

No answer. How quiet it was. She could hear herself breathing.  “Please? Will you be out soon?”

Nothing. Not a sound.  It wasn’t right. Shouldn’t the person inside answer? At least say, “Just a minute, little girl?”

She tried again. “I really have to go.”  Did she hear a sigh from the bathroom?

The door stayed shut. She clutched herself between her legs and looked around for help. Someone. Anyone. That’s when she saw the door of the back guest room on the right was partly open and the lady with big boobies was sitting at a dressing table inside, combing her dark hair in the mirror and keeping her gaze fixed on the reflection in front of her as if Anna didn’t exist. Hadn’t she heard Anna talking to the person in the bathroom?

The lady was wearing nothing but a slip. It was peach-colored and satiny, with creamy open lace at the edges; you could see the outline of the tips of her big boobies through the satin. Even though the maids had made all the beds in the morning, this lady’s bed was messed up, with the sheets and bedspread thrown back every which way and the pillows tossed around. And even though this lady didn’t have a husband any more, there was something black thrown on a corner of her bed over the tangled sheets that looked like a man’s bathing trunks. They were the kind of black knitted bathing trunks Anna’s father wore.

Then Anna knew she shouldn’t wait any longer for the bathroom door to open. She turned, ran downstairs, out of the Annex, up the path towards the main building, and reached the children’s end of the pool just in time.  Her mother noticed she was back and sat up on her blanket. “Everything all right?” she called.

The sun was in Anna’s eyes. Waist deep in water, she squinted in the direction of her mother.

“Anna? Are you all right?”

That was a different question. Anna nodded yes, she was all right.

           

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THE GIRL WHO BECAME MY MOTHER (PART VI)

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[Continued from five previous posts: “My mother was born on or about July 16, 1904 in or near what was then Vilna, Russia, to Vladimir Vainschtain and Berta Isaakovna Vainschtain (nee Shulman)….” When she was ten, her father died and her mother took her and her five-year-old brother to Baku, where she was sent to live with a married half-sister.]

IMG_0563LIFE IN BAKU.  This is what I know about my mother’s life in Baku:

School.  She said she had not been a remarkable student, and did not especially like school. Her best subject was mathematics. On a scale of 0 to 5, her marks — I am using her term — were always 5 in mathematics, usually 4 in everything else. (Mathematics probably meant arithmetic, at least at first, although later it would also have had to include algebra, geometry, and maybe even calculus.)  However, her academic performance was good enough to win her one of the few places reserved for Jewish girls in a “gymnasium” — one of the official schools in Tsarist Russia from which a diploma was necessary for entry to any institution of higher education.  Admittance to a gymnasium — for everyone — was by examination, but  the competition for the few Jewish places was fierce, especially where the Jewish population was large. According to a memorandum my father wrote of his own early life in Russia, the Jewish quota for all officially approved schools was ten percent of the student population. My father added that when his brother, five years older than he was, took the examination, there were not many Jewish families in Baku, and even fewer Jewish children, so it was relatively easy to win a place. But when the time came for him to apply, it was a different story!  A flood of people had come south, fleeing first the war, then the Communist takeover in the north — and of course among them many more Jewish families. My mother was two years younger than my father; her own disclaimers about her scholastic achievement to the contrary, her performance on the entrance examination must therefore have been very good indeed.

Piano.  She had wanted to learn to play the piano, perhaps because cousin Lisa had played. Lessons were available to her, but her half-sister had no piano on which she could practice. For a short while she tried to practice on the school piano after hours, when it was not in use. But this seems not to have worked out, and she soon gave up. When I was seven and she was thirty-four, my father bought a Steinway baby grand on time (monthly payments) and arranged for me to have lessons. My mother was very proud of that piano; it had the place of honor in our living room. Every day she dusted it lovingly and carefully wiped down the ivory keys one by one. But when I — the helpful seven-year-old — suggested that now we had a piano she could take lessons too and practice while I was in school, she shook her head. “No, it’s too late,” she said.

Crushes. As she entered adolescence, she lavished love on famous women opera singers and actresses. She even brought the cardboard-backed photograph of one of them to America — her favorite, I suppose.IMG_0541 It shows a  svelte woman in a floor-length dress and a long looped string of pearls looking up at the ceiling dramatically. The photograph is signed (in Cyrillic lettering) Vera Kholodnaya; I have no idea who the woman was.  Perhaps a silent film star? A renowned soprano? I remember my mother singing snatches of arias from Tchaikovsky’s Eugen Onegin while she did her housework when I was little.  [As a result, I can sing them, too:  “Shto-tyi, Lenski, nyi tansooi-ish?” Why, Lenski? Why aren’t you dancing?]

Appearances. One summer, she said, she had only two dresses, both white. But every day, she would wash and iron one and wear the other, so that she was always clean and neat.

Dieting. She also dieted, allowing herself every day only one small bunch of grapes and one piece of bread. [Here she would draw with her two forefingers on the kitchen table the outline of the square of bread which had been her self-imposed allotment.] She must have had iron self control. As for the length of time she maintained this spartan program, she never said. Telling me about it, when I myself was trying to slim down for college, was supposed to be inspirational. But by then I recognized a recipe for certain failure when I heard it, and did not seek further detail. My generation counted calories.

Vanity. She squeezed her feet into shoes that were too small for her because small feet, she said, were fashionable in Russia and she was vain. (It may also have been that during wartime and afterwards, pretty shoes were hard to find and you took what there was.) When I was growing up, she wore a 6 ½ and then a 7. She said that in Russia she had sometimes tried to get into a 4. As a result, she developed enormous red bunions that distorted the shape of her feet and later gave her much pain and many visits to chiropodists. It was not until she was nearly eighty that she gave up wearing stylish shoes and consented to become an old lady in sneakers.

Starvation. After the Red Army arrived in Baku in 1920, food became scarce. Soon there were no more potatoes. No more grapes. Bread was rationed. And what bread was available was so adulterated with sand she developed canker sores from malnutrition.

Romance.  At seventeen, she had a boyfriend. He was blond, with light-colored eyes; his oddly combed hair featured a wave at the upper left temple. He appears at the right side of the front row of a group photograph of university students, sitting on the ground and wearing a jacket with some kind of medal hanging on it.  My mother, unsmiling and plump (despite the diet), with long brown hair loosely heaped up beneath a large hat, is seated near the center of the second row.

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Although they’re not sitting near each other, I know the blond one with the wave is the boyfriend because among the photographs she brought with her from Russia is a separate small photo of the same young man; the hair, wave and medal are identical.

IMG_0550On the back of the small photo, in pale violet writing so faint it would be illegible even if I could read Russian, is a personal message to my mother from the subject of the photograph.  They saw each other for about six months, she said. Once she also told me they were engaged. I now think this means she slept with him, a confidence she would never have shared with me at the time in so many words. [After becoming a mother, she put her own past conduct behind her and adopted the two principles on which American mothers were then allegedly raising their daughters: (1) Men want only one thing; and (2) No man will marry used goods.]

Another loss.  This fiancé was not my father. So how did they break up?  (At last, a juicy part of the story!)  My mother pursed her lips and smoothed the sleeve of one of my father’s dress shirts on the ironing board before sprinkling it with water from a glass. “His family was connected to the nobility,” she said. “So they arrested him.”  And? The hot iron made a sizzling sound on the damp shirt. “We went every day to the prison.” She didn’t explain who “we” was. “Until we found his name on the list.” “What list?” I asked. “The list of those who had been shot. ” My mother turned my father’s shirt over on the ironing board to do the back.

MY FATHER.  Not long afterwards, my mother met my father, an engineering student at the Technology Institute in Baku –probably during the summer she turned eighteen, or just before.  “How did you meet?” I asked.  “At university,” she answered.  My father was more specific.  They had mutual friends, who introduced them on the esplanade running along the shore of the Caspian Sea.  Four or five months later, he managed to bring her out of Communist Russia with him. They made this exodus sound simple when I first heard of it.  He asked if she wanted to come.  She went to ask her mother if she should go.  Her mother’s response is the only thing she ever told me Berta Isaakovna said to her.  There was no equivocation:  “If you can get out, get out.  There’s nothing for you here.”  My grandmother also sold a featherbed and a pair of pearl earrings to give my mother the money to pay her passage.

But it wasn’t simple.  “Getting out” was far from easy.  However, I have already written that story elsewhere. It appeared in an online magazine called Persimmontree. You can read it here, if you like. This may therefore be a good place to stop, before my mother and father reach America, speaking no English, but leaving war, hunger, and executions behind them forever.

When they were both in their early eighties and my father happy to reminiscence, I asked him once why he had invited my mother,  met so recently, to come with him to America. He thought about it for a moment, smiled, and said, “I wanted sex.”  I looked at my mother — that staunch advocate in my girlhood of “Men don’t marry used goods.”

“Mama, was this true?”  She nodded sheepishly, and lowered her head.  And never mentioned it again.  But who’s to say she was wrong to succumb so quickly, and so soon after the execution of the first fiancé?  I have to be glad she did, or I wouldn’t be here to tell you about it.

My mother’s experiences in America may well have further shaped the girl of eighteen who arrived on Ellis Island.  But what she experienced in those first eighteen years — the repeated losses, deprivations, dislocations, fear (whether or not I have got the details quite right) — was formative.  They crippled her as a person, a woman, a mother.  Until she died she was afraid of “them” and what “they” might do.  (You couldn’t ask who “they” were.  She didn’t know.)  She placed excessive value on “money,” both overly respecting and also envying those who had the security and comforts it could buy.  She thought you were nothing without a man, you must do all you could as a young woman to attract one, and then once you had him devote yourself to him and his needs for the rest of your life so as not to lose him  — irrespective of the cost to your own needs and happiness.  She thought it was safest to stay home, it was bad to be Jewish, it was good to be beautiful.  Once I was no longer a little girl, it was never easy to be her daughter.  But that’s another story.

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So I will leave you with one last photograph of my mother and father on the streets of New York, six months after they arrived in America.  It was the summer of 1923, when she was nineteen and he was twenty-one and their whole grown-up life in a new country was still to come.

 

A TRUE STORY, MORE OR LESS

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[All the names in what follows have been changed.  Nothing else has.  I give you what I heard.]

Once upon a time, in the very early 1980’s, there was an English lass named Mary Louise who lived in Nottingham, home of Robin Hood’s sheriff.  After she passed her O levels, she began working in an office, typing and filing and generally helping her boss.  She also married a boy from school.  Mary Louise had a younger sister named Cathy Anne who did the same thing two years later — O levels, office work, marriage to a chap from school.  After that, the sisters lived in flats not too far away from each other and their mum and dad.

Cathy Anne stayed married, went on living in Nottingham, and eventually had three children.  Mary Louise and her husband divorced after twenty-one months. It just hadn’t been right.  No hard feelings.  They stayed chums and all that.  But when the divorce was final, Mary Louise decided to celebrate by taking her summer holiday on a Greek cruise boat, with a girlfriend from the office. 

Mary Louise was big. Nice looking if you had a taste for big, but she was just under thirteen stone in weight.  [That’s about 180 pounds.] She wore navy blue a lot, because it was slimming.  However, she kept her naturally brown hair blonde, and she had friendly brown eyes, a generous smile and a genuine liking for people. Although she knew nothing about Greece, and not a word of Greek, she had a grand time on the trip.  The captain and other ship’s officers could speak some English — and they certainly tried to make the passengers feel they were getting value for their money.  There was delicious Greek food, and Greek music and dancing at night, and the first mate, especially, was an amazing dancer.  Slim and straight as a young tree, when he went into action solo he was so fast and graceful it took Mary Louise’s breath away.

Her appreciation must have showed, because he paid her a lot of attention after the dancing.  In his growly Greek-accented English, he said he liked a woman with some meat on her, which made her blush. And when she blushed, he looked at her as if he could eat her up.  After that, he came to find her every single evening.  But he was a perfect gentleman the whole time.  He might not have looked like a gentleman, what with his thick curly hair down to his shoulders, and a bit of stubble on his cheeks and chin.  Her girlfriend said to watch out.  But he never laid a hand on her, except once to help her on with the jacket that went with her sleeveless navy cotton dress on an evening when the breeze came up.

Until the last night.  She knew she’d never see him again when the cruise was over, and that was okay.  She hadn’t expected to.  She was already looking forward to getting home again and telling her mum and dad and everyone in the office all about her holiday, maybe throwing in something about the first mate to show that thirteen stone was not fatal in the romance department.  That’s just when he came over to her as she was looking over the ship’s rail at the dark water.  He had something to ask, he said.  He wanted her phone number. In Nottingham!  What a lot of nonsense. He lived on some tiny little Greek island near Turkey when he wasn’t on the cruise ship. But she gave him the number anyway, because he looked so sexy when he asked.  Then — as swiftly as he danced — he suddenly swept her into his arms and kissed her.  Oh.  That kiss.  She knew she would never forget it.

When they disembarked the next day, it was all business.  He stood in his white uniform between the captain and the second mate seeing the passengers down the gangplank.  He did give her a wink.  But then it was over.

She had moved back in with her parents since the divorce. One evening, about three weeks after the cruise, the phone rang.  Her mum picked it up.  “Mary Louise,” she called.  “For you.  It’s some Greek.”

It was Tomas.  (That was the first-mate’s name.)  He wanted her to come to his tiny island.  For a visit?  No.  To live with him.  He would give up his job on the cruise ship.  His father owned a boat and a little house. He would run the boat with his father, so he could stay on the island with her if she came, and not be cruising the world.  He knew what he wanted, he said.  Did she?

Did she?  From what she had heard, the island had no paved roads, unreliable electricity, no cars. She couldn’t speak a word of Greek. What would she do there, except be with him?  She thought about the office in Nottingham, and the typing and the filing, and finding another chap, and another flat, and hanging up nappies to dry in the kitchen, as Cathy was now doing. And then she thought about the kiss.

Her boss said he’d keep her job open for her for a year.  Her mum said she could always come back. Her dad said she should listen to her mum.  So she went.

He met her at the Athens airport.  They spent the night in Athens because they had to take another plane to get to an island called Leros; the second plane didn’t go but once a day, and they had already missed it. Then they crossed Leros by bus to reach the dock where Tomas’s father was waiting in his boat to pick them up and take them at last to the tiny island near Turkey. “And he never went further than a kiss until his father had met me and approved,” said Mary Louise twenty years later, which was about ten years ago.

But by then she was no longer Mary Louise.  She was Maria.  She spoke Greek badly but without fear, and with a strong Nottingham accent.  She had also lost four stone, and never wore navy blue any more. She zipped around the island on a bright red Vespa, and leaped in and out of small boats as if born to it, and ran a beautiful, stylish set of furnished studios for tourists that had become the island’s “best-kept secret.”  She had two gorgeous children whose first language was Greek, and who spoke English somewhat, although not like English children.  But first she had lived, unmarried, with Tomas for ten years, in one room of a two-room house, in which they slept, made love, ate, and in which she did laundry by hand, cooked, and kept the books for the boat business. Tomas’s father lived in the other room, so she did his cooking and laundry, too.  She also opened a small shop with an Italian woman on the island; the shop — Maria and Teresa — sold lovely long resort dresses and small objets d’art, and bags, and pareos, and got Maria out of the two-room house and talking to tourists, which she loved to do, and let her make shopping trips to Athens, which she loved even more.  But what she loved most of all, and still does, was Tomas, even if he did make her wait ten years before he married her, when she became pregnant with their first child.  And what she worked hardest at was keeping him — with his roving eyes and appetites for a lovely bosom or a well-turned leg.  Her hair stayed blonde, her figure slim, her clothing bold and inviting, her cooking plain, good, Greek and copious. And she has a great belly laugh.

There was no doctor on the island until recently; the one there now is just out of school and on a one-year assignment, after which he leaves and a new medical school graduate arrives.  [Maria flew to England to have her babies — in part to ensure her children had dual citizenship but also to have proper medical care in case anything went wrong.]  Electricity still fails regularly, at which time the toilets fail to flush.  The last time I was there, nearly seven years ago, dial-up internet was just arriving, and only for the businesses in the harbor.

One could therefore say that in many ways, Maria’s life has been physically and emotionally hard.  She lives halfway between the English world she was born into and the Greek island world of her children, who are now entering their twenties.  Tomas has not always been a flawless husband, if gossip on the island is to be believed. And on such a tiny island why shouldn’t it be — in general, if not in detail?  She lives in a country crippled by financial calamities, on an island not likely to be an immediate beneficiary of any European Union assistance that reaches Greece.

Would she have been better off back in Nottingham, with or without that unforgettable kiss?  Does she ever envy Cathy Anne, her sister, living out a probably foreseeable life, albeit in an England of financial austerity?  I don’t think she entertains such questions. Mary Louise grabbed what was offered, and didn’t look back.  Although her name is now Maria, I’m sure she hasn’t changed.