FROM MY FATHER (Part Three)

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From left to right: Menia (my father), Monia (on violin), Bertha (pretending to play the piano), Bronia, Father (my grandfather), Mother (my grandmother). Probably taken in 1909 or 1910.

[My father died at the end of January 1986, just after his 84th birthday. When he learned he was dying, he began to write a memoir of his early years. He didn’t get as far as he had hoped before he felt too weak to continue. So what I am offering here is all there is. Since English was not his native language, I’ve cleaned up his manuscript a bit. But not too much. I did try to preserve his locutions, to give you the flavor of his speech.

I have no idea who will have the patience to stay for long with a dying man wishing to preserve what he can of himself and his family on paper before he goes and at the same time trying to relive his youth one last time. If you think we should quit — because you came to read me, not him — let me know in the comment section below. Until I hear from any of you that I’m just humoring myself, I’m going to keep typing till I get to where he stopped…. A visit with my father wasn’t always 100% interesting. But one usually came away with something to remember in the end.]

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BY MICHAEL RAGINSKY

[Continued from previous post….]

August 8th, 1984

By this time, I found out I had an Uncle; he was Father’s brother, who also arrived with his family to Baku when we did. His family consisted of his wife, two girls named Sifa and Mania and two boys named Solomon and Boris. The girls were a little older than I, but the boys were younger. Uncle’s name was Isaac, which he promptly changed to Russian name Alexander; his wife’s name was Enaia, which remained same for the rest of her life. They lived close by, and the boys became my playmates.

My father’s name was Nachum-Leib, which he too changed to Nahoum, or in Russian, Naum. Mother’s name was Sima, but Russified her name to Sonia or Sophie. Both of my sisters also changed names, from Beile to Bertha and from Broche to Bronislava. (Beile in Jewish meant “beautiful” and Broche meant “prayer!”) My brother’s name was Moses and in Russian Moisei, and that’s the way it remained till we came to America, when it became Morris. My name was Mendel. Why I got it and what it meant I never knew. All I knew is that I did not like it. I took the Russian Revolution as a good opportunity for me to change the name to Michael. During the first months of Revolution it was comparatively easy to get hold of documents with the new name, and from then on all other papers could be changed to Michael too. But at home I was always called Menia or Menichka, and my brother Monia or Monichka, although the sisters were called by their Russian names.

My father also had a sister called Dunia. She was married to a man by the name Rossinsky. By profession he was a cap and hat maker for men. He could make very fancy, and I thought very beautiful, hats for officers and other officials, and regulation hats with visors for Gymnasium students. He always made hats for me and my brother, but that was later, when Father brought his sister and family also to Baku.

About the same time, Father also brought to Baku his own Father and Mother. He settled them in a room separate from our dwelling but close by. By that time we had moved from our apartment into a huge building in the commercial part of Baku, where Father and Uncle opened their first store together. The building had many stores and also housed a Gymnasium for boys. The stores had entrances from the street and also from the rear, which opened to a huge back area, more like a ball park.

The building was owned by a Azerbaijanian Moslem (tatarim) who hardly could speak Russian. He chose Father as advisor in his dealings with Russian officials as well as to take care of all his official paperwork. Father became his right hand in dealing with Russian officialdom! He used to arrive in a magnificent carriage with three fine horses, surrounded by his cronies. His name was Gadji-Aga Gadjieff, and he was an enormously rich man. But his sense of humor left me flat. Once, I remember, he arrived in the spring to see Father at the store and had to wait a bit as Father was out, so noticing me in the office part of the store, he casually asked in broken Russian what month was it.  I said, “May,” to which all of a sudden he broke out again in broken Russian, “Ya perdnu a ti poimai!”  “May” and “poimai” rhyme in Russian, but the meaning is very stinky. It meant, “I will let out a fart, and you catch it!” I was taken terribly aback, not expecting anything like that from such a V.I.P. person and was speechless! But the V.I.P. burst out laughing, joined by his cronies, for a very long time. Almost till Father got back to the office. Such delicate sense of humor!

My mother also had a brother. I never saw him, but I knew of him because he had a candy factory in Odessa and was sending us from time to time packages and boxes of his candy; they were very fancy, wrapped up in papers with pretty pictures on them. Mother’s Mother was living somewhere in a little village in Ukraine — alone, as Mother’s Father was always traveling all over Russia, but mostly in Siberia, representing book publishers and selling books. I met this Grandfather only once, when he came to visit us in Baku. He was a handsome tall man, with a huge white beard and completely bald head! He liked to drink Vodka. I guess in Siberia it is a must to keep warm!  My Father was very deferential to him, as also to his own Father.  This Grandfather did not stay long with us, but before he left he was very generous with his grandchildren.  I do not know what he gave to sisters, but he gave a lot [of money] to Monia, for him to buy a fine violin and a beautiful photo-camera.  I got nothing! I received Monia’s old camera, which I did not like and did not want! I never did use that camera!  Mother’s Mother, our Grandmother, was later to stay with us for a few years and once in the summer we all went to her village and spent our summer vacation there.  But about all that later.

In our family, no one wore glasses except Father and us two boys. We were nearsighted. All others had fine vision all the time!

Father’s goal was to bring out all of the relatives to Baku from Ukraine, and that required a lot of money, which I imagine was not forthcoming in amounts needed. And so, coming back to the time when we lived nicely in our apartment with a maid — I was about five then — we had to move and lower our living standards. We moved to the building I described where the store was located, on Borgovaia Street II (Commercial Street II), into small quarters next to the store. Later we moved again to live in the back of the store. The store was huge in length and so it was easy to partition it off — in the front for the store part, and in the rear for living. Still later on, another store was opened and Uncle and his family set up living quarters in the other store’s back.

My uncle Alexander, in contrast to my Father, had a great black beard which he always groomed and was very proud of. He did not wear eyeglasses and neither did anyone in his family.  My Grandfather (Father’s Father) was a very religious man; he was also bearded, with a great white beard.  He was most of the time praying in synagogue or at home. He liked my brother very much but did not care much for me!  My GrandMa was a nice little lady and liked me very much; I was visiting her often and she always had cookies and cake for me, something I got very rarely at home. Once, on a Jewish holiday, she even poured me a small glass of vodka with the cake. Vodka for a five year old! Needless to say that I was drunk for the rest of the day! Mother was furious! And that was the end of visits on Jewish holidays to GrandMa.

In our house there was never much religion. Father would go to synagogue on big Jewish Holidays, and also celebrate Passover  with all ritual during meals.  Mother would pray over candles lit on Fridays, and there were no un-kosher meals during Passover and no un-kosher dishes. Also there was no cooking on Saturdays; all the cooking was done Friday and the meal was kept warm till Saturday. But that was all.

My Grandfather and GrandMa lived near us until GrandMa died. I saw her in coffin and cried! After that, GrandPa left Baku and I never saw him again. I think that he left for Ukraine, where he was more at home with other religious friends near the synagogue.

The huge store building where we lived had also in the center a great gate from the street through which students could walk to Gymnasium and carriages could enter the premises. In the summer, an open-air movie house opened inside the open area in the yard, and Father had a key to the private box that belonged to the rich landlord, so I was the first customer for the first show every evening. I loved movies!

August 9th, 1984.

By now I was about six years old. The year was 1908. The two stores did not work out too good, and Father and Uncle decided to combine both stores into one, but both retained the back parts of the stores as living quarters for each. The front of one of the stores was given to Sister Dunia and her husband the hatmaker, and they established a thriving business for themselves. He was an excellent worker and very ambitious; he was at his sewing machine from early in the morning to late at night working, increasing and selling his inventory of caps and hats.

Father and Uncle were working together in the other store, which they stocked with various merchandise all imported from Germany: sewing machines, knitting machines, bicycles, phonographs and records, different kinds of musical instruments, strings, etc. Apparently, they were doing well. They had a system whereby each would take in all the cash that came from sales every other month — six months one partner and the other six months the other partner. Each one, after taking out equal amount of money for living expenses, would put the excess into a fund to pay business expenses and for the merchandise. Father would go about twice a year to Germany on his buying trip, and Uncle would tend the store.  Uncle was a good mechanic (also self learned) and was very good at fixing all sorts of mechanical problems with the merchandise.

By that time, Monia was already going to the Gymnasium, located in our building. The Gymnasiums in Russia were official schools of learning, and the diploma from the Gymnasium was necessary to be admitted to any institution of higher learning, like University or Engineering School.  In Tsarist Russia there was a quota for all Jewish children that could be admitted to any institution of learning except private schools, whose diplomas were not accepted at University or Engineering School. Jewish quota for all officially approved schools was 10%; if the class consisted of forty students, only four Jewish children were admitted. The admittance for everyone was by examinations, but the competition for the few Jewish places was fierce, especially where the Jewish population was large.  In Baku, there were very few Jewish families at that time and even less Jewish children of school age. So for Monia it was comparatively easier to be admitted to the Gymnasium. But when the time came for me to apply, it was a very different story!

[To be continued…]

FROM MY FATHER (Part Two)

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From left to right: Menia (my father), Monia (on violin), Bertha (pretending to play the piano), Bronia, Father (my grandfather), Mother (my grandmother). Probably taken in 1909 or 1910.

[My father died at the end of January 1986, just after his 84th birthday. When he learned he was dying, he began to write a memoir of his early years. He didn’t get as far as he had hoped before he felt too weak to continue. So what I am offering here is all there is. Since English was not his native language, I’ve cleaned up his manuscript a bit. But not too much. I did try to preserve his locutions, to give you the flavor of his speech.

I have no idea who will have the patience to stay for long with a dying man wishing to preserve what he can of himself and his family on paper before he goes and at the same time trying to relive his youth one last time. If you think we should quit — because you came to read me, not him — let me know in the comment section below. However, until I hear from any of you that I’m just humoring myself, I’m going to keep on typing till I get to where he stopped…. A visit with my father wasn’t always 100% interesting. But one usually came away with something to remember in the end.]

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BY MICHAEL RAGINSKY

[Continued from previous post….]

August 5th, 1984.

This is an eyewitness story of twentieth century events, as seen by me and into which I was born in the year of 1902.

I was never really sure if the date or year of my birth was truly January 18th, 1902, because I never saw my birth certificate. Nor was I ever told by my parents when I was born.  There were never family celebrations of anyone’s birthdays — neither of my parents nor sisters nor brother.  It always was a deep secret about each one’s age!  Why?  I never knew.  Of course in those days a birth certificate could have been gotten from Tsarist officials with a good bribe, for any date and year — which at times came in handy if it was for a boy, in order to escape compulsory military service. In any event, in my later years I reconstructed everyone’s ages by events; whether I arrived at the correct ages or slightly incorrect is not very important!

I placed my birthplace in the City of Ekaterinoslav in Ukraine (at the present time called Dnepropetrovsk) in the year 1902, on the 5th day of January (old Russian calendar) or on 18th of January by the present day calendar.  Ukraine today is one of so-called “independent” Soviet Republics.  The three large cities are Kiev, Odessa and Dnepropetrovsk.  In these cities are very large Jewish populations and still larger populations of anti-semitic Ukrainians.

My recollections of early years are not very clear. I remember playing by the house where we lived in a large sand pit, shoveling sand with my little wooden spade and building little houses.  I remember wearing a cast-off little dress with pockets (probably from my sisters) which were always full of fine sand. But that’s all I remember, except that besides Father and Mother I also had a brother and two sisters.  One of the sisters (Bronia) would play with me.  Even later I never knew what my Father did for a living at that period, although Mother would occasionally reminisce of that time and mention Father worked for a lawyer.

When I was two years of age, Russia was embroiled in a very disastrous war with Japan, which Russia lost!  In 1905, the first Russian Revolution also broke out and was murderously crushed by Tsarist Cossacks. As usual, “pogroms” against the Jews started all over Russia!  Someone had to pay for the Russian defeat, and most convenient victim had to be the Jew! The police organized bands of hoods, armed them and aided them to go after the Jews. These bands of hoods were called “Black Hundreds” and specialized in torturing and murdering whole families of Jews!  Evidently we were very lucky to escape the fate of other unfortunate families, as Father was able to bribe someone for foreign passport and took the family out of Russia and to Germany!  By then, I was about three years old, and the next few things I remember are while in Berlin.

August 6th, 1984.

In Berlin we lived in a apartment on the second floor. The floor was shiny yellow, probably well waxed parquet, but with very little furniture, practically bare rooms.  I know now that at that time the ages of my sisters were: Bertha 13, Bronia 11. My brother Monia was 9. Father was approximately 33 and mother 31. I was the youngest.

I did not know then, nor ever heard later, what Father did in Germany for a living to support such a large family. But I do know now that Father was a very brilliant man; he admired everything German and became fluent in German — speaking, reading and writing all self learned. He was also fluent in Russian, reading, and grammatically and correctly speaking and writing, and knew a lot of Jewish, speaking, reading and writing it.

His admiration for everything German carried over to wearing a mustache “a la Kaiser Wilhelm,” then German emperor. It was an enormous mustache. He was proud of it and always had the pointed ends turned upwards. He was great music lover and his secret desire was to be a concert violinist. He learned to play the violin himself and of course, not much good came out from his efforts, because simply without time to practice and good teacher, it is very difficult to accomplish good results, even with talent.

He was of medium height, medium weight, and other than the famous “mustache” was always cleanly shaved.  No beards, sideburns or hair anywhere else, except on the head — but in summertime the head was also cleanly shaved for coolness, in style of German Generals!

Like I said, I did not know what Father did for a living in Germany, but later I heard that Father made good connections with German industrial manufacturers for representation and credits in the new part of Russia: Baku. The manufacturers advised Father to go to Baku because it still was at that time a sleeping oil giant; the area was developing and riches awaited anyone willing to work hard. So after the 1905 Russian Revolution was crushed by the Tsar, we would all return to Russia and go directly to Baku. At that time there were only very few Jewish families there, and all of them either in professions or in businesses.

Father and Mother married early in life: he was twenty and she was eighteen or so.  By the time I was born, there had already been four children in the family before my birth. Only three survived. One died either in infancy or as a young boy. Except that it happened, there was never any talk about the dead brother.  If he had lived, he would have been 6 or 7 years of age.  As it happened, I was born as a replacement for a lost son!  Large families were very important in those days; they were insurance for parents against old age, and especially important were sons!

August 7th, 1984.

And so, coming back to my recollections of life in Germany, I vividly remember my new sandals made of yellow leather, which I treasured very much and when not wearing them would leave them in the corner and constantly from time to time go to inspect them, to see if they are still there!  I loved to smell the leather, and often polished them. I just loved my little sandals!

Then I remember playing in the street with a shiny yellow wheel which I was rolling with a little rod up and down a clean and very wide sidewalk by the house. Down below our apartment was a little market where Mother used to shop. At times she would take me along. The owner of the store was a big, fat German man in a white smock or apron. And as he knew me from coming with Mother and playing with my wheel on the street, sometimes when Mother was too busy to go herself downstairs to the store, she would give me the money and a big copper pitcher with a tight cover and send me down to the store to buy milk. I would run and ask the owner in German: “Eine canne milch, bitte.”  I remember this little speech even now! The owner would smile and pour milk into my pitcher and I would proudly run upstairs to Mother and deliver the milk. I saw very little of my sisters and brother. Either they were at school or I was asleep when they were around.

The rest of our time in Germany did not leave any lasting impressions in my mind.  Also I don’t remember when and how we returned to Russia. All that I remember is that in Baku we were in apartment, also practically unfurnished; we were sleeping on the floor covered with bed sheets and I would wake up very often because of the heat. The heat was terrific. It must have been summertime! We lived in this apartment till I was about five years old. Little by little the apartment got furnished with most necessary furnishings. There was a hall gallery that had a large table which was used for many purposes, but mainly as a dining table; and there were rooms for sleeping, and after a while there was a maid to help Mother with family chores.

I remember that maid very well! One morning after everyone left — sisters and brother to school, Father to business and Mother to markets — I remained in the care of the maid alone at the table. She was giving me my breakfast and the food was still on the table: bread, butter, cheese, milk and, in a metal can, Holland cocoa! The maid was a very nice young Russian peasant woman from some Russian village who came to work to Baku for better wages. She had a boy friend: Russian soldier. That boy friend was visiting her often and at times was taking her out for a few hours in the evenings. (The maid lived with us.) On that morning, she attempted to educate me and to explain how babies came. She said that a man had a “special instrument” that helped to bring babies. She never explained what the “instrument” was and left it to my own imagination! I liked the maid very much; she used to play with me and tell me fantastic fairy tales.  One day, to my great sorrow, she left — never to come back.  Apparently the “special instrument” of the soldier had something to do with it!

[To be continued….]

FROM MY FATHER (Part One)

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[My father died in Palm Springs, California, at the end of January 1986, just after his 84th birthday. He’d known for at least a year and a half he was dying. He had a serious cardiac condition his doctors thought would be hazardous to try to correct with surgery. So when they told him he might expect only another year or so to live, he sat down at his Royal typewriter and over the course of nine days in August 1984 began with two fingers on the keyboard to tap out a memoir of his earliest years. But while he was still telling about his life as a little boy, he must have felt too weak to continue.

He wrote in English, although his native language was Russian and he had learned English without formal lessons, just by living in New York. But he loved to talk and to read, so it’s surprisingly good English for someone who disembarked at nineteen knowing not a word.  His spelling is excellent. He remembers more often than not to include the articles “a,” “an” and “the.” However, his punctuation could use improvement, and his paragraphing is non-existent. And because he wasn’t really a writer, he sometimes repeats himself. I’ve therefore cleaned up his typescript a bit to try to make it more readable, while also preserving some of the Russian-language verb usage and locutions that make it sound as if you were with him, not me.

I have no idea what anyone else will think of this experiment in transcribing my father.  Although he gets off to a strong start in his Introduction (see below), and apparently had grand plans for what he was going to recount, much of what he actually managed to write may be boring to anyone who didn’t know him  — now only me and my two sons, who both already have photocopies of the original document he left. It’s true he does inadvertently give us bits of early twentieth century sociology as he goes along, a kind of child’s eye view of what life was like for Jews in Tsarist Russia. But I wonder who will have the patience to stay for long with a dying old man wishing to preserve what he can of himself and his family on paper before he goes and also trying to relive his youth one last time. 

Bill thinks I’m making a mistake in giving my dead and sometimes long-winded immigrant father a six-post platform on an internet he could never have imagined while he was alive.  If you agree and think we should quit — because you came to this blog to read my sort of posts, not his — let me know in the comment section below. On the other hand, until I hear from any of you that I’m just humoring myself, I’m going to keep on typing till I get to where he stopped….  A visit with my father wasn’t always 100% interesting. But one usually came away with something to remember in the end.]

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BY MICHAEL RAGINSKY 1984

Introduction

As I stood on the deck of “Marmara” on a glorious, sunny afternoon in October 1922, watching the ship slowly moving away from the pier in Batoum and probably looking for the last time in my life on the Russian land fast receding from my view as I began my voyage into the uncertain future — a stream of thoughts and dreams kept flashing through my mind!

The Black Sea was green, clear and transparent, calm and beautiful. The octopuses, playfully grabbing each other in the warm afternoon sun, swam close to the great ship, totally mindless of the dangers of the turning sharp blades of the motors. And I thought, looking at them, it’s just like myself: starting a journey into a strange world — without knowing anyone or knowing exactly how or where I will land — in order to call the new place my new home and my new life!  But one thought drove me on: to get out as fast as I could.  I felt like adding all my strength to the ship to push it faster and faster away from the land where I was born and grew up.

It never entered my mind how I was to accomplish all this.  I was going without any money, without any valid foreign admittance visas, without a thought what will become of me if I should fall ill or be destitute in a strange country, without friends, relatives, language. I was banking on my youth, my strength and my driving ambition just to get out of Russia and, if very lucky, to make it to U.S.A.

And then, suddenly breaking up my thoughts and dreams as the ship was already sailing into the open sea from the harbor — the sounds of staccato machine gun shooting from a small naval coast guard boat rapidly approaching “Marmara” and ordering it to stop for inspection!  My heart sank and I thought, God! what’s wrong now? I hope all my Russian exit papers are in order…

In a few minutes, three armed men dressed in familiar black leather jackets of the dreaded secret police CHEKA, the predecessors of no less dreaded present KGB, were aboard our ship!  This was the beginning of our journey!!!!!!

But I must start my story from the beginning, and will return later to my adventures on the trip from Russia to U.S.A.

[To be continued….]

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.

           

BEAR

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[I first posted this very short piece last week on the blog of Julie Lawford, who blogs as Jools at A Writer’s Notepad.  Julie had requested contributions from other writers who follow her blog, none to exceed 250 words.  She received thirteen such short pieces, including mine. The other twelve are all well worth your time, and I urge you to go take a look.  However, since this one is mine, and not all of you follow Jools, I’m putting it up here too.  Like the two preceding posts (Tweed and Bathroom), it comes from a novella in progress.]

BEAR

Just after Anna began sleeping in her new big girl’s bed, she dreamed the wild animals in the zoo escaped from their cages. Everyone had their windows shut tight so no animals could get in, except the window in Anna’s room had been left open by mistake. She was very frightened.

Sure enough, a huge brown bear climbed over the sill. His mouth was open, he had long pointed white teeth, saliva dripped from his gums; she knew he wanted to eat her. Heart pounding, she slipped out of bed. The bear saw her. She circled the bed. The bear came after her, round and round, closer and closer….

That’s when she woke up. Her mother was there. Her mother stroked her hair and kissed her and told her it was just a bad dream, but that if a bear ever did get into her room, all she had to do was feed him honey and he wouldn’t hurt her. Then Anna really did wake up and found herself all alone in her room. Her mother wasn’t there. The advice about feeding bears honey had been part of the dream, too.

After giving it a lot of thought over the next few days, Anna decided her mother’s advice in the scary dream had not been useful. How would she find honey in her room if a bear came into it? And how would she feed the honey to such a huge bear?

 

 

BATHROOM

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[From a novella in progress.]

Anna had to make a wee, but the bathroom door was closed. Although the knob was above her head, she could reach it on tiptoe — a glass knob, with little smears of white paint on it. She turned it and pushed the door halfway open.

The toilet was right behind the door. Her naked father stood in profile, holding some part of himself over the bowl. She never saw his face. She never saw what he was holding. As soon as the door opened, he slammed it shut again, just missing her. His voice was a roar: “DON’T YOU EVER COME INTO THE BATHROOM WHEN I’M IN IT!” Why was he so angry when she hadn’t known he was there?

And she had to go so badly! She burst into tears. Her mother came running. Now her father was yelling at her mother. Her mother spoke through the door, saying calm-sounding things in the foreign language they used with each other sometimes. Then she took Anna away to the kitchen, where she taught her to sit on a saucepan on the floor whenever she had to make a wee or a stinky and her father was in the bathroom. The saucepan dug a circle in her hiney. It hurt.

“Sometimes I have to use a pan, too,” her mother confided.

Grown-up Anna occasionally looks at the height of doorknobs, trying to estimate how old she could have been when this happened. Certainly not more than three.

 

 

TWEED

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[From a novella in progress.]

Anna’s mother parted her hair on the side, so you could see her widow’s peak. Her upper lip had dainty points in the middle. Her ankles were lovely, with bones that showed. And when she got dressed, she looked more beautiful than any other mother in the playground.

Sometimes Anna went into her mother’s closet and stood with her nose pressed against her mother’s good clothes and fitted coat; they smelled delicious, just like her mother. Her mother said the fragrance she wore, that lingered on her clothes, was Tweed.

After Anna grew up, she would sometimes ask for Tweed at perfume counters. The salesladies always shook their heads. “That’s an oldie,” said one. “Lentheric used to make it. I don’t know who carries it these days.” Then Anna found it, in a specialty fragrance store.

But when she sprayed it on herself at home, it wasn’t at all what she remembered. Well, she didn’t have her mother’s body chemistry. (Or — come to think of it — a widow’s peak, or visible ankle bones, either.)

She resealed the bottle as best she could and mailed it to her mother. The next time they spoke on the phone, her mother thanked her but said she hadn’t worn Lentheric for years.

Somehow that made Anna sad. She had so loved standing in the dark closet, breathing her delicious mother into herself. Now her mother was a different person, and they were separate people forever.