HOW I GOT TO BE BORN IN AMERICA

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[This piece first appeared under another title in the Spring 2010 issue of Persimmontree, an online magazine of the arts by women over sixty.  The editors called it “A Story.”  It is a story, about another story.  But whatever the title, it’s what’s at the end that counts.]

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I was fifteen when I learned how my parents had managed to get out of Russia. I found out only because Mr. Mirsky had come to dinner. My mother and father did not usually discuss the past. While I was still a little girl, I did sometimes ask my father why he had left, but I never thought to ask how. I was sure that if you were a grownup and decided to go somewhere, there was no problem about it. You just went.

My father always answered that he had left because of Stalin’s mustache. The mustache scratched when Stalin kissed him.

“Why was Stalin kissing you?” I would demand.

“Because he was my uncle.”

“But Daddy, he wasn’t your uncle!”

“Of course he was my uncle,” my father would laugh. “In Russia, he’s everybody’s uncle. That’s why they call him ‘Uncle Joe.’”

Well, even I knew that was nonsense. Stalin never kissed my father.

Then came the war—the Second World War—and the Soviet Union became our ally. It was suddenly okay to have a Russian last name (although people were still always asking you to spell it). I even stopped wishing my parents had named me Joan or Barbara, and focused on getting the teachers at P.S. 99 to pronounce my first name correctly.

My father met Mr. Mirsky at the Marshall Chess Club about a year after the war. There must already have been early rumblings in the papers of the Cold War to come, but it wasn’t called that yet. In any event I didn’t read newspapers much. By then, I had plenty of homework from Hunter High and spent all my leftover time being hopelessly in love with Leonard Bernstein.

Mr. Mirsky had emigrated from Russia earlier than my father and mother, while the Czar was still on the throne and it was easy to leave, but had gone to England, not America. (He had even flown in the Royal Air Force during World War I.) Afterwards he had married a rich Argentinian and now lived with her in Buenos Aires most of the time. He was temporarily in New York, at a small residential hotel (confided my mother), so as to make sure that his daughter, who was at Vassar, met the “right” sort of young man. He was trim, rather good-looking for an older gentleman, and had a charming English accent with a faint underlay of Russian and beautiful manners. He always kissed my mother’s hand when he arrived for one of the occasional Sunday dinners to which my father invited him, and he always brought a fifth of Haig & Haig Pinch, which he emptied mainly by himself during the course of the afternoon, after my father had had his habitual single shot and my mother her habitual single sip.

Although I was several years younger than Mr. Mirsky’s daughter, I was consumed with envy of her. Rich mother, distinguished father, Vassar, and her choice of an appropriate husband delivered on a silver platter! I therefore lingered at the table after these dinners, so as to gather every crumb of information that might fall from Mr. Mirsky’s lips about this fortunate young woman. My father was less interested in Mr. Mirsky’s problems with his daughter’s romantic life. His usual discretion and courtesy dissolved by good food and Scotch, he had a dismaying postprandial tendency to reminisce. Always hoping he would be quick about it so we could get back to Mr. Mirsky’s daughter—who after several of her father’s dinners at our house had somehow managed to become entangled with a Life photographer of whom both her parents disapproved—I would stay fixed in my chair (the alternative being greasy pans in the kitchen sink). And so, on one occasion, I heard the following story:

In 1921 my father was nineteen years old and in the third year of the engineering program at the Institute of Technology in Baku. Baku was then still part of “White” Russia. (Mr. Mirsky confirmed this with a nod.) In many of his classes, there was a slightly older, very serious student with round spectacles who never chatted with anyone and was not part of any social group my father knew of. But because they were enrolled in so many of the same lectures, they began to greet each other when they met in the halls, and once in a while they lent each other their notes when one or the other had to be absent from class. Then the Red Army completed its long southward march from Moscow and reached Baku. The solitary bespectacled student disappeared from school.

One day, two policemen rapped at the door of the apartment where my father’s family lived. He was to come at once to the Central Police Station. What had he done wrong? He told his frightened parents not to expect him back. However, after he was dragged to the station and roughly pushed into an office set off from the main room, who did he see behind the large desk in front of the windows? His missing classmate!

“Have a seat,” said the bespectacled fellow, in a not unpleasant voice. “Would you like a cigarette? A coffee?”

Such courtesy! And what’s more, an apology of sorts: The police should not have manhandled him. They were new recruits. Not yet trained. A weary sigh from Mr. Spectacles. What could he do with such peasants? “Please, have a seat,” he urged again. (My father was still standing.) “It is not, of course, a criminal matter.”

Two small cups of bitter black coffee appeared. Bottoms up together! And with the coffee, a modest confession. All the time the two of them had been attending lectures at the Institute together, Mr. Spectacles had secretly been head of the local Bolshevik party cell. With the arrival of the Red Army, there was no longer need for secrets. As my father could see, he was the new Chief of Police.

(How old could he be, my father wondered. Twenty-two? Twenty-three?)

But then, enough with pleasantries! Time for business. Bringing his empty cup down on the desk with a loud clap, the young Chief of Police briskly explained that he had ordered my father brought to him because he was the only student from the Institute he knew by name. Since he was now very busy with his new responsibilities, he had no more time to go to class and would therefore appreciate it if my father could fill him in on a regular basis with what was going on there so he could sit for the exams at the end of the academic year.

“’Appreciate it!’” said my father to Mr. Mirsky. “As if I had a choice!”

And so for the rest of the academic year, my nineteen-year-old father came daily to the Central Police Station after school, trying not to see what was taking place in the main room as he passed through it. He sat nervously on the extra chair in the inner office, where he read aloud his notes of that day’s lectures while his former classmate nodded thoughtfully behind the big desk and, as my father put it, signed orders for execution by firing squad. The small cup of bitter coffee he was offered each time didn’t help.

After a while, he couldn’t stand it any more. It wasn’t just the mandatory sessions in the police station. Life under this new regime was becoming hopeless. He didn’t want to live in fear that the next time the police rapped on the door it would be a “criminal matter.” He didn’t want his family to have to share their apartment, their kitchen, their bathroom with three other families they didn’t know. He didn’t want meals to consist primarily of sandy bread and moldy potatoes, brought back from the countryside by his two sisters on their bicycles. Once he managed to scrape together enough money to buy his mother a pound of butter on the black market for her birthday. He saw the butter, paid for the butter. But what got wrapped up for him to take home was a pound block of ice that melted on the kitchen table as his mother unwrapped it. He had to leave.

Mr. Mirsky shook his head. “1921? Too late. You needed papers for that. No more getting on the train and taking off for Paris or London.”

“Well,” said my father, “I was young. And I was stifling. There was no harm in trying. But not Europe,” he added. “I was thinking America.”

And should he bring his older brother with him? Then there was my mother, just seventeen, whom he had met a few months before. He asked if she wanted to come to America, too. She had to go ask her mother. “If you can get out, get out!” her mother told her. “There’s nothing for you here now.”

With what must have been considerable courage, my father came with three sets of the necessary papers, filled out except for the all-important signature, to his former fellow student, the new Chief of Police—who by now seemed also to be functioning as the de facto head of the provisional government in Baku—and told a brazen lie.

He, his brother, and his half-sister would all very much like to study in Germany during the next semester, he said. There were some important courses there, not being offered at the Institute or the University in Baku, which they felt were necessary to their education. Would it be possible for their departure to be authorized for this limited purpose?

The Chief of Police peered over his spectacles at my father, then looked away. He did not ask anything about these very important courses, or where they were being offered, or if my father or his brother or his so-called half-sister with the different last name spoke German, or when they all planned to return. Instead, after a moment he picked up his pen and quickly signed all three sets of papers.

“Did he know you were lying and not coming back?” I asked.

“Of course he knew,” said Mr. Mirsky.

“Then why did he do it?”

“One good turn deserves another?” suggested my father. “He later rose very high, you know. Very high.” He looked meaningfully at Mr. Mirsky.

“So?” said Mr. Mirsky, leaning forward. “Who was he?”

“You can’t guess?”

Mr. Mirsky shook his head no.

“Lavrenti Beria,” said my father softly.

Mr. Mirsky examined his glass for some time. “That’s quite a story,” he said, finally.

After he left, my father came to find me in my room. “Don’t tell that story to anyone else,” he said. “I shouldn’t have let you hear it.”

“Why not?” I demanded. “Isn’t it true?”

“Of course it’s true,” said my father. “That’s why you mustn’t spread it around.”

“But it’s such a good story,” I protested. “It could even be in Reader’s Digest.”

My father sighed. “Do you know who Beria is?” he asked.

Did I know? What did he think? That I was stupid? Lavrenti Beria was Stalin’s executioner. Head of NKVD, the Soviet secret police agency that later became the KGB. He was responsible for millions and millions of deaths of innocent people. He was a bad bad man. Just looking at his face in the newsreels, you could tell he was evil. That’s what made it a story, for heaven’s sake.

“You never know what they’ll think,” my father said.

“What who will think? Who is ’they’?” He was so exasperating.  “You’re not in Russia anymore, Daddy. This isn’t the Soviet Union. You’re an American citizen.”

Our voices brought my mother out of the kitchen. I could see her pale, worried face next to his. Two anxious people standing in the doorway of my room who did not want to hear from me about freedom of speech, or this being a free country, or any of the other things I had learned in Civics. Although they had managed to escape from a place where fear had darkened their lives and were now in a nice three-and-a-half room apartment with good light in Queens, they were both forever alert to gossamer threats of danger everywhere.

“Be on the safe side,” said my father. “Don’t tell.”

They were my parents.

I promised not to tell.

The brother who was supposed to come with my father to America decided at the last minute to remain behind. My mother and father never saw their families again. But they eventually moved from New York to Los Angeles, and later to Palm Springs, where they lived long and relatively tranquil lives under the California sun. By contrast, my mother’s brother and my father’s brother and two sisters in Baku all died before them—one banished to Siberia and an unknown fate during the Kirov purges (for which Lavrenti Beria was responsible), the others succumbing to various diseases after shortened lives of constricted deprivation.

I became a lawyer after college, eventually married, and had two sons—each of whom now has a little daughter and son of his own. That makes seven of us, all American born, who could be said to owe our existence to Lavrenti Beria. He doesn’t get full credit, of course. However, one could make an argument that but for him, we would not exist. Which excuses nothing about his life, except that it’s interesting to think about. On the other hand, it’s highly improbable that our seven lives were foreseeable in the Central Police Station of Baku in 1921, when Beria set pen to paper on the basis of my father’s dubious explanation of his need to take leave of the better Soviet world then in birth. So if I put my professional glasses on, proximate cause just doesn’t figure into it and none of us owes Beria a thing.

What happened to Mr. Mirsky? The problem of the Life photographer soon resolved itself without his intercession; the young man was sent overseas to cover some unsavory part of the world where trouble was brewing. Several years later, when I myself was in college (although not Vassar), I learned from my mother that the daughter eventually met the scion of a publishing company (a choice apparently “right” enough for her parents) and had a very grand wedding. Her father then returned to Argentina and the rich wife and was never heard from again.

Stalin died early in 1953. Lavrenti Beria was soon afterwards either shot in his own house in June 1953 (according to his son) or executed by firing squad in December 1953 after a trial without defense counsel (according to official accounts), whereupon he began gradually to fade from popular memory. That would seem to release me now, finally and definitively, from the promise I reluctantly made my father not to tell the story I had just heard him tell Mr. Mirsky.

But after all these years it’s not, as Mr. Mirsky observed, “quite a story” any more. Not when the name in the punchline no longer inspires fear and trembling in anyone. In fact, it seems to have become quite another story—about a time when I was young and my father was alive, sitting at the dining room table, his eyes shining with pleasure as he told us what had happened when he was young, and life exciting, and the unknown future still ahead.

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EIGHT TALES FROM A GIRLHOOD LONG AGO: #8

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Under the Clock, 1946

About six months after the end of the war, the Philadelphia hotel where Anna’s father was working decided to replace him and his ensemble with a pianist, bass player and drummer who played popular music and jazz. This time, however, he’d sensed management might be up to something and was able to jump before he was pushed. When “they” came to give him his pink slip, he informed them he would be leaving in any case.

Anna tried to visualize this scene as her father, the wonderful raconteur, waved his fork in triumph over his plate of Sunday roast beef and mashed potato. Who was the “they” who had come to him with the dreaded piece of pink paper? Surely it had to have been a single person. She imagined a balding bulky man in a dark business suit, with a white handkerchief folded just so in his breast pocket and gleaming gold cuff links at his wrists. Dressed exactly like her father when he went to work, as a matter of fact. Well, her father wasn’t bulky. Although he was getting there. He must have been eating very well in Philadelphia.

“Where are you jumping to?” she asked.

Her mother’s eyes shone with happiness. “He’ll be playing at the Biltmore!” she announced. “Under the clock. Isn’t that wonderful? They’ve put his picture up all over the hotel already.”

“Clock?”

“The clock in the cocktail lounge off the lobby,” said her mother, as if she were explaining something to an idiot. “It’s a well-known meeting place. Haven’t you ever heard the expression, ‘Meet you under the clock at the Biltmore’?”

She’s just showing off, thought Anna.   As if she ever met a friend for cocktails in the city!

All the same, the next day she dragged a friend from her Latin class to the Biltmore after school let out. The friend was for moral support. Clutching their strapped books and notebooks against their winter coats, the two tiptoed through the hushed resplendent hotel lobby towards the cocktail lounge. No one stopped them. Anna looked up. Her mother had been right: there was a large clock face suspended from the ceiling.

“We’re not old enough to go in,” whispered her friend.

They didn’t have to. You couldn’t miss the important-looking photograph of her father holding his cello — wearing his best dark suit and gold cufflinks, with a white handkerchief folded just so in his breast pocket. It was to the side of the lounge entrance on a tall stand, above an announcement in beautiful lettering:

Beginning March 1

 the music of

 Michael Shaskolsky

 and his ensemble

 For cocktails and dinner

  “I didn’t know your father was famous.” Her friend was still whispering.

“He’s not so famous,” said Anna as they backed away on the plush carpeting. Her father’s photograph and the announcement were also on the mirrored wall by the elevators in two places. She felt proud, and at the same time ashamed of being proud. After all, it was just an advertisement, wasn’t it? And she herself had had nothing to do with its being there.

My father doesn’t have his picture up all over the place in fancy hotels,” said her friend.

“Your father probably comes home for dinner every night.”

“What’s that got to do with it?”

It was too complicated to explain. “Never mind,” said Anna.

They walked out of the hotel and as far as the subway at the corner. “Are you sure you know how to get home to Brooklyn from here?” Anna asked. This friend wasn’t the sharpest tool in the box. But Anna was glad she had asked her to come along. It was very pleasant to be envied, if only for having a father with his picture in a hotel lobby.

[To be continued at a later date….]

 

EIGHT TALES FROM A GIRLHOOD LONG AGO: #7

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Danilov’s Advice, 1945

Her mother’s despondency didn’t lift. Anna dealt with it by spending as little time with her as possible. Every school night she worked in her room for three or four hours on her Latin, English, Algebra and Biology assignments, including the ones for extra credit. On Saturdays she always tried to arrange a visit to one of her new high-school friends from another borough. On Sundays she took long walks all around Kew Gardens and Forest Hills no matter the weather, peering into the windows of other people’s houses and daydreaming of life in another family. Behind the closed door of her room she also made frequent and lengthy entries in her diary, including every detail of her mother’s complaints about her, so there should be some record of them.

Since this will not be read by anyone till I am gone, I can confide from the inner recesses of my soul and hold back nothing. Someday I will be famous, and after I am dead people will want to know all about me. That is my motive for writing in this secret book. It is an account for posterity of what is going on in my life, so that future generations will not have to speculate about missing facts.

It did occur to Anna that those future generations might think her conceited for being so sure they would be interested in her, but she was certain that someone out there in the centuries to come would want to know what she had really been like, and then admire her fortitude and other good qualities. Besides, it made her feel much better when she unburdened herself in pen and ink, and right now that was the most important thing.

One November weekend when her father was home she went with him to buy the Sunday paper. Being unable to keep up with him when she was little, and even the business later with the belt, seemed so long ago and insignificant compared to her present circumstances. Besides, it was no problem at all to keep up with him without getting out of breath now she was fourteen; they could even have a conversation while they were walking. She told him she was having a lot of trouble with her mother. Nothing she did was ever right. She didn’t know any more what would please her.

As soon as the words were out of her mouth, she wished them back again. Suppose her father didn’t believe her? After all, her mother always cheered up when he was there. Surprisingly, he nodded thoughtfully.

“Did you ever hear of the Danilovs?” he asked.

“Only the name,” said Anna. “Mother used to mention the wife sometimes. Wasn’t she a famous opera singer in Russia?”

“Yes, she was. And he was a famous orchestra conductor. They were here in New York for a series of concerts in 1914 when war broke out so they couldn’t get home again. And after the revolution, naturally they didn’t want to.   He — Danilov — was about my father’s age. A fine musician and a real man of the world. Very helpful to me when I was young and just off the boat.”

“I never met them,” said Anna, wondering what these Danilovs had to do with her mother troubles.

“Of course not,” said her father. “They moved to L.A. just after you were born. But before that, I always felt I could go to him when I needed advice.”

“And?”

“And,” said Anna’s father, “after I had been married to your mother for about six months, I realized I was tired of her. I was only twenty-four and she was already very boring. I wanted a divorce. So I went to Danilov to ask what to do. You know what he said?”

Anna shook her head, even though she had already learned in English class that the type of question her father had just asked was rhetorical and therefore required no answer.

“He said, ‘So what if you’re bored? You get divorced, you’ll find another woman, and in six months you’ll be bored with that one too. This one is young and pretty. Why go through the trouble to change? They’re all the same. Manage with what you’ve got.'”

They had reached the front door of their apartment house. For a moment Anna was flooded with pleasure to learn that her father found her mother boring. Then she wondered what lesson she was supposed to draw from this confidence. Manage with the mother she had? That’s what she was already doing!

“Don’t tell your mother,” said her father as he felt for the keys in his coat pocket. “It’ll be our secret.”

It wasn’t until years later, when she was seeing her first shrink, that Anna began to wonder why her father had been so ready to share advice from a so-called man of the world with his fourteen-year old daughter about wanting to leave her mother. Did he think he was comforting her? He had even seemed in a particularly good mood for the rest of that day.

Then, having leveled the playing field as best he could, he went back to Philadelphia and Anna went back to managing.

EIGHT TALES FROM A GIRLHOOD LONG AGO: #6

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Managing, 1945

When Anna’s father had to take a job in Philadelphia, Anna’s mother said they would just have to manage. But she didn’t manage. Especially not after Anna began attending a selective high school for girls in Manhattan. Anna now had to leave the apartment at 7:30 in the morning to get to school by roll call at 8:30, and was almost never back before 5:30. She was in the Latin Club, the Drama Club and the Debating Club, all of which met once a week after school. Her class had elected her Class Representative to the Student Council, and she had also become a reporter for the school newspaper. She felt busy and important and excited about being in this interesting new school.

Her mother was not equally excited for her. Anna would often open the front door when she finally got home only to find her mother sunk in an upholstered armchair in the very clean living room still in her housecoat, apron and slippers, no lipstick on and hair not yet combed although it was almost dark out. Without Anna having noticed how or when it had happened, her mother had gradually slipped into a state of sour unhappiness.

What had become of the mother Anna loved so much? This one complained Anna didn’t keep her room neat, her bureau drawers were sloppy, all she did was read, read, read. This one scolded that Anna didn’t stand straight: Didn’t she realize what she looked like when she slumped? This one found everything wrong. Anna didn’t even try not to wear her glasses all the time. (Her eyes were her best feature — why was she hiding them?) Anna had no nice friends. (Peggy downstairs was a “shtunk.”) Anna should have gone to Forest Hills High like the other girls in her eighth-grade class, where she wouldn’t be wandering around downtown until suppertime. And where there were boys.

It was so unfair. She wasn’t fourteen yet. Did getting her period make everything different? Was she suddenly supposed to become another sort of girl? Or was it because of what her father, on one of his alternate weekends at home, had called “the change?”  Apparently “the change” had come early to her mother. Also her father’s absence in Philadelphia was in its second year, which meant that her mother had been having much less to do around the house for a long time. All his laundry was done at the hotel; the bathroom was much less untidy; her mother didn’t have to prepare meat and potatoes every night. She should get a job, thought Anna. Quite a few mothers had jobs. If she had a job, she wouldn’t always be picking on every single thing Anna did.

“Who would hire me?” said her mother.

“You could be a secretary.”

Her mother shook her head bitterly. “I can’t type.”

“You could take a course. You could learn.”

“I can’t spell right in English.”

Anna sighed. “You told me once you were good at mathematics in school. You don’t need spelling for that. You could be a bookkeeper.”

“I was working in bookkeeping in a big department store when Daddy married me,” said her mother. “But he made me stop. He said it wasn’t right for a man’s wife to work.”

“That was a long time ago. Maybe he’s changed.”

“Bookkeeping is what’s changed. I wouldn’t know how to do it any more.”

Anna didn’t know how to answer that one. She wasn’t sure if bookkeeping had changed or not.

“I’m useless now,” her mother said flatly. “And worn out. Just worn out.” She bent over in the chair; Anna could hardly make out what she was saying. She thought she heard, “What’s going to happen to you when I’m dead?”

“What do you mean?” she cried, frightened.

Her mother rocked back and forth, still bent over. “I sacrificed my life for you when you were a baby.” Her voice was shaking. “And now look at you.” She began to cry. “I wish I’d never been born.” After a moment, she added, “I wish you’d never been born!”

Anna turned away, so her mother shouldn’t see her face if she sat up. The parquet pattern of the wood floor blurred, but she managed to get to her own little room and sit down at her maple desk. A few tears escaped the back of her hand and fell on her desk blotter. She looked at the small wet spots with satisfaction, wishing someone could have seen how brave she had been when her mother said that horrible thing to her.

Then she promised herself that when she had children, she was absolutely never going to blurt out something on the spur of the moment that maybe she didn’t really mean without thinking first about how the children would feel.

EIGHT TALES FROM A GIRLHOOD LONG AGO: #5

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Belt, 1943

Once school began again in the fall Anna didn’t see her father much except on Sundays, when he didn’t go to work. She would be on her way to P.S. 99 before he was up in the morning. By the time she came home in the late afternoon he had usually already left with his cello for the subway trip to whichever downtown hotel he was playing at. And because he had to be there from the beginning of the cocktail hour until they stopped serving dinner, he wouldn’t get back again until eleven or so, by which time Anna was in bed if there was school the next day.

Sometimes on Friday or Saturday nights she did still happen to be up that late, listening to records in the living room or talking with her mother about the movie they had just come back from seeing. But once they heard the sound of his key in the lock, her mother would jump up and say, “There’s your father. He’ll be very tired. You better go to your room.”   Anna always went. If her time alone with her mother was over, why stick around? From behind her closed door at the end of the corridor she could hear their two voices at the other end, speaking a mixture of Russian and English. Although she had come to understand a few household Russian expressions, she could never quite make out what they were saying. After a while she stopped trying.

Then one afternoon during her last semester of grade school, she dropped her schoolbooks on the hall table, hung her coat up in the hall closet, and found her father home, apparently not in a good mood. He was standing with her mother in their bedroom and he wasn’t wearing one of the dark suits he reserved for going to work. Her mother gestured and put her finger to her lips — meaning, Anna supposed, that she should go quietly away and leave them alone. But Anna was not in such a good mood herself. She had got B+ on her most recent composition for English, unfairly she thought, and wanted to complain about Mrs. Seabury, her eighth grade teacher, who had refused to raise it despite Anna’s best efforts at persuasion. She planted herself in the doorway.  “What’s going on?” she asked. “Why is Daddy home?”

She spoke to her mother, but it was her father who answered. “Anna, I want to talk to your mother alone.”

“Why?” asked Anna. “What’s so secret?”

“Anna, do as I say.”

“I want to hear.”

“This doesn’t concern you.” He sounded very stern.

“Why not? I live here too.”

Anna had never confronted her father before. Was she moving into a danger zone? She could feel her heart beating faster.

“Anna!” Her mother had her hand on her chest. She looked alarmed.

“When your father tells you to go, you go,” said her father.

“And if I don’t?”

Her father looked as if he didn’t know what to say next. “I’m your father!” he sputtered.

“So?”

“Anna,” her mother pleaded. But Anna didn’t care about pleasing her mother just then.

“Who says you’re the boss?” she demanded.

Her father was breathing hard. Suddenly he unbuckled his belt and wrapped one end around one hand. “Lay down on the bed and pull up your dress,” he commanded.

Anna stared. Was this really happening? Neither of her parents had ever even spanked her before. Beating with belts was from stories about poor unloved little children growing up on farms in Europe in the last century. Besides, she wasn’t a little child anymore. She was twelve! She was nearly as tall as he was!

She tore the belt from her father’s hand and threw it on the double bed. Then she turned and ran to her own room, slamming the door behind her. No steps came after her in the hall. The apartment was very quiet. It was probably safe to hurl herself on her own bed and stare, enraged, at the ceiling. How dare he? Pull up her dress? Whip her? With a belt? She was never going to forgive him!

After a while her mother tiptoed into her room and sat next to her on the bedspread. “Anna,” she said. “He didn’t mean it. He really didn’t. He’s so sorry.”

“Then why didn’t he come tell me himself?”

“It’s hard for him to apologize. Men aren’t like us. They have pride.”

“I have pride, too.”

Her mother sighed.

“Did he at least say he was sorry to you?” asked Anna.

“No, but I can tell. He’s upset.”

He’s upset? You think I’m not upset?”

“You have to understand, Anna,” said her mother. “You’re a big girl now. He just lost his job. The hotel is economizing. Live cocktail and dinner music can be cut. So they cut it. And now we won’t have money coming in any more.”

Anna sat up. Her mother had a serious expression on her face. So it was true. Anna tried to imagine what life would be like if her parents couldn’t pay the rent or buy food. “Where will we live?” she asked. “Will the landlord put us out on the street?” Why did this have to happen to her now?

“Well, he will try to find something else,” said Anna’s mother. “They did give him two weeks salary when they let him go.”

“Can he find something in two weeks?”

“We hope so. He’s certainly going to try.” Anna’s mother stroked her hair. She hadn’t done that for a while. “But he’s very worried. So it wasn’t a good time to make him angry.”

“How was I supposed to know he was worried if no one ever tells me anything?”

“We don’t want you to have to think about our problems,” said Anna’s mother. “You’re still a child.”

“You just said I was a big girl.”

Her mother ignored this remark. “But even if he was angry,” she said, “he would never actually hurt you. You’re his daughter, a member of his family. Believe me, that man couldn’t hurt a fly.”

“I still think he should have come to tell me he was sorry,” said Anna.

Anna’s father did find another job during the next two weeks, although not in New York. What he was offered was in Philadelphia. But it paid extremely well, said Anna’s mother, and might also lead to profitable side engagements playing at society parties and weddings, so they would be able to save money for the next rainy day. Unfortunately, he would be living at the Philadelphia hotel and coming home only every other weekend.   Well, they would just have to manage, said her mother.

It was a big load off Anna’s mind to learn they would not be put out on the street. She also hoped that once her father had nothing more to worry about, he would tell her he was sorry about the belt. But he didn’t. He went off to Philadelphia without a word about it. He must have forgot.

EIGHT TALES FROM A GIRLHOOD LONG AGO: #4

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Homemaking, 1943

After Anna’s mother had a cup of black coffee and a piece of dry toast alone in the kitchen early in the morning, she squeezed oranges and strained the juice (because it was healthier than canned, and Anna’s father liked the taste better), and then cooked oatmeal for Anna’s breakfast and a separate breakfast of bacon and eggs, sunny side up, for Anna’s father, who ate later in his bathrobe and slippers while reading The New York Times. During the school year, she also made Anna’s lunch, to take in a brown paper bag.

When the eating was over, she cleared the kitchen table and wiped it clean of crumbs, after which she filled the kitchen sink with hot water and suds and washed all the breakfast dishes, the double boiler used for making oatmeal, the greasy frying pan, the juice squeezer and strainer, and the coffee pot. These she dried with a kitchen towel and put away. She scrubbed the kitchen sink clean and took the garbage out to the incinerator at the end of the third-floor hall.

Next she aired and made the beds. Then it was time to dust. Every day she went over every surface of every piece of furniture in every room with an oiled cloth, picking up each thing on top of each table and bureau and giving it a good wipe as she went. After that she swept the floors and ran a carpet sweeper over the rugs in the living room, Anna’s little room and the big bedroom. Once a week, instead of using the sweeper she pulled the heavy vacuum from the front hall coat closet, not only to give the rugs a more thorough cleaning but also to use one of the attachments on the sofa, two upholstered chairs and drapes in the living room.

Last, she cleaned the toilet, bathtub and sink — where Anna’s father left a lot of hairs — and washed the bathroom floor and kitchen linoleum on her hands and knees, using a pail of soapy water and old torn-up sheets and towels to wipe with. She said she couldn’t reach into all the corners and cracks with just a mop. Often she got through all this by eleven in the morning. Then she could brush her teeth, wash her face, change her housecoat and apron for a skirt and blouse, and put on some lipstick for doing the marketing, usually her only outing of the day.

Once a month, though, she did what she called really heavy cleaning, which meant that she washed all the window panes inside, and outside as far as she could reach up without falling out of the window, with ammonia and water and crumpled old newspapers, and also took down the curtains in the two bedrooms and the kitchen, ran them through the washing machine in the basement of the building, and ironed them before putting them up again. On those days she didn’t go out and they would have leftovers for dinner.

“Why do you have to clean so often?” asked Anna. Even in summer with the windows open, she couldn’t see that anything except the window sills was actually dirty.

“It’s easier if I do it every day,” said her mother. “Before things get really filthy.”

That didn’t make sense to Anna. She would rather spend a whole day once a week cleaning up an apartment that needed it than waste half a day every day keeping a clean one absolutely perfect.

Her mother considered this opinion for a moment but dismissed it. “Your father likes a clean home.”

“What do you care,” said Anna, “if the apartment is already clean and he can’t tell the difference?”

Anna’s mother shook her head. “How do I know what he would notice or not notice?” She put the carpet sweeper away in the broom closet and hung her apron on an inside hook. “Besides,” she added, “even if you were right, which you’re not — what else would I do?”

EIGHT TALES FROM A GIRLHOOD LONG AGO: #3

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Bureau Drawers, 1943

Anna and Peggy were sitting on the floor of Peggy’s room in Apartment 2C with their underpants off and their legs spread apart, each holding a pocket mirror a few inches away from her vagina in order to see what was there. The mirrors were Peggy’s idea; she had inspected herself that way before. At first Anna had hesitated. But after she finally did look, she was disappointed. Somehow she had thought her secret place would be more alluring. Instead, all she saw was a yucky mess of creases with a little goo in the folds. She wondered if Peggy’s secret place was better looking.

“Do you think your folks still do it?” asked Peggy, setting down her mirror.

“Do you think yours do?” parried Anna, gladly setting down her mirror, too.

“Probably,” said Peggy. “But I searched their bureau drawers once when they were both out, and I couldn’t find any rubbers or anything. There was nothing in the bathroom either.”

“What are rubbers?” asked Anna.

“They look like long skinny white balloons before you blow them up,” Peggy said. “Men put one on their thing so as not to make babies. Then their stuff comes out in the rubber instead of in the woman, and they can just take off the rubber and throw it away when it’s over.”

“How do you know?” asked Anna.

Peggy shrugged modestly. “I just do, that’s all.”

Anna raised her left eyebrow. She had recently practiced this in the bathroom mirror for several days after seeing Ann Sheridan do it in a movie, and could do it herself now.

“You hang around, you learn,” Peggy added.

Anna wondered who Peggy was hanging around with. Her mother had recently declared that Peggy’s mother and father were not cultured. (Nyi kulturnyi was the expression she used, but Anna knew what she meant.) Maybe her mother was right that she — Anna — shouldn’t be coming down here so much. She moved the conversation back to where it had begun. “Don’t you think our parents are too old?” she asked.

“My mother says you’re never too old,” declared Peggy.

What kind of mother was so open?

Nevertheless, Anna went through the bureau drawers in her own parents’ bedroom at the first opportunity. Her mother had gone to the butcher for a chicken and would be gone for half hour at least, so she had plenty of time to search thoroughly. But she could find nothing that resembled a skinny white balloon. On the other hand, tucked between two of her mother’s monogrammed Irish linen hankies was an interesting discovery of another sort: a full-length sepia snapshot of her father standing in front of a building somewhere, looking young and slim and handsome. He was wearing a light-colored double-breasted suit and smiling warmly into the camera. The words in ink on this photograph were Russian, in her father’s neat handwriting.

Anna took the snapshot over to a window, where the light was better. The date written on it — 1923 — was no trouble to read. It meant the picture was taken two years before her parents had married. But all the rest of the four lines squeezed into the bottom of the snapshot were impossible for her. Although she knew how to pronounce the Cyrillic letters, she had no idea what they spelled out. Only one word at the end of the first line — “Musinka” — was comprehensible. “Musinka” meant “little Musia.” “Musia” was what her mother had been called in Russia, although her official name was Mira. But “Musinka” was an expression of great affection. The four lines to little Musia were from “M.,” who was of course the person in the picture — her father.

Anna’s father sometimes did call her “Annushka” when he was in a very good mood. She couldn’t remember a single time when she had heard him call her mother “Musinka.” Howeever, the snapshot and whatever else was in the long-ago message on the photo must still mean a lot to her mother if she kept it in such a very private place, and not in one of her photograph albums. Best if it stayed private. Carefully, Anna slid the sepia snapshot back between the pink hankie and the pale green one, where her mother had hidden it, and closed the bureau drawer.