FIRST HUSBAND (II of II)

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[A story continued from previous post.]

Inertia won out. It was easier, and at least marginally more interesting, for Millie to resume her thrice-weekly meetings with Richard when he returned a divorced man than not to. Another thing: she had begun to miss the sex. While he was gone, she found herself leaning forward with spread-apart thighs and rubbing herself back and forth on the Chevrolet seat at red lights.

It was less easy to fool her mother.

“Where are you going?”

“Out.”

“With whom?”

“Friends.”

“What friends? April?”

“Other friends.”

“So what time will you be back?”

“Late. Don’t wait up.”

At least she always made sure to drag herself out of the Murphy bed by one o’clock or so, pull on her clothes and drive home, so that she should be in her own bed when her mother got up to bring in the morning paper. Which was something. (And not easy.) But not enough of a something to warm up the chill that was enveloping the parental breakfast table and the many dinners a week she still ate at home.

For his part, Richard objected to her not spending the night. He thought she should rent a furnished studio apartment of her own. She could afford it now that she was a copywriter, he said. It would also solve her mother problem. Why was a grown woman  — was that what she was, a “grown woman?” — still living with her parents? Dutifully, she found a vacancy in a decent-looking building and put down a $55 payment for March. The apartment was just like his, Murphy bed and all. But whenever she thought of living by herself in that gloomy, ill-lit and transient accommodation, soon to be hers, she felt only fear.

February inched along. She made no preparations for the move or for explaining her imminent departure to the two people who cared about her so much. Just before the end of the month, she summoned up courage to confess. Her hitherto gentle and forbearing mother spoke sternly. Millie was on the verge of an irrevocably awful act. There were only two reasons an unmarried girl left her parents’ home: Either she was going to do something very bad she had to hide from her family — here her mother paused meaningfully — or else she was such an unpleasant and difficult person even her own flesh and blood could no longer bear to live with her!

Head pounding with tension and guilt, Millie knew this was both nonsense and true. Did she really want to move out? Of course not. She just wanted everything to be all right. She began to cry. Her mother soothed her. In the end, she told Richard she couldn’t bring herself to hurt her mother, which was a kind of lie but not entirely.

“So there goes $55,” said Richard.

Why should he care? She was the one who had lost it. What a failure she was!  One day when she knew he had morning classes, she let herself into his studio with the key he had given her and called in sick at work. Then she sobbed aloud, hugging herself on the shabby green sofa against the grimy window. There was very little comfort in the apartment when Richard wasn’t in it. After a while, she got up, locked the door, and drove to a doughnut shop, where she bought six jumbo doughnuts with yellow custard filling and chocolate icing, plus a quart carton of milk. Parked in a neighborhood several miles away where no one could possibly recognize her, she methodically munched her way through all six doughnuts, washing them down at intervals with gulps of milk from the waxy triangular opening in the carton.

When she was done, she felt very full and slightly nauseous, but not enough to throw up. She unbuttoned the waistband of her skirt, stuffed the debris back into the empty bag, which she left under her car before pulling away from the curb, and drove home. She told her mother she had felt ill at work and needed to lie down. Drugged with starch, she fell asleep at once. Next morning she had a terrible taste in her mouth, but it passed.

“It’s always darkest before the dawn,” said April.

“Oh, April,” Millie exclaimed. “You’re my only friend. What would I do without you?” Actually, Millie didn’t have a very high opinion of April. No gumption, no ambition. Ironing her cotton blouses night after night. What did she know about life?

But it soon began to look as if April might be right.

Millie’s mother decided to look for a job herself. She made it known at the breakfast table. Now that Millie’s father had a broker’s license and was selling real estate days, evenings, weekends, and Millie was working and (she added darkly) doing who knew what else — what was there for her at home all alone? Back in New York, she had once sold gloves at Lord & Taylor during the Christmas season. Maybe she could find something like that downtown.

“Good, that’s good, Bubi,” said Millie’s father, turning a page of the newspaper and getting butter on it. “It doesn’t hurt to look.”

Her Russian accent and good taste in dress put Millie’s mother on the floor of the Arts and Gifts Department of Robinson’s within a week. She reported back proudly to Millie and Millie’s father that Mr. Wonderly, the buyer, had told her she was charming and that customers were going to love her. After that, she rose before dawn every morning to take the curlers out of her hair, carefully apply makeup, and leave breakfast on the table for Millie’s father before she ran for the downtown bus. (She wanted to get in early to help Mr. Wonderly arrange the floor and make sure her sales book was in order before the store opened.) At night, she was tired. Millie could count on an announcement to that effect as soon as she walked in the door, always later than Millie herself. (Well of course, thought Millie; what did she expect, standing on her feet all day?) Then she would hurry to change out of her good clothes into a housedress and get some food on the table — sometimes a warmed-up casserole she had prepared the previous Sunday but more and more often something she had recently discovered in Ralph’s called a “TV dinner,” which you could defrost in the oven and eat right out of its own aluminum tray and which meant very little washing up.

Millie’s father was not entirely pleased with these developments. There was occasionally some parental bickering about Millie’s mother’s new life. But the mournful looks and sighs Millie’s mother had previously lavished upon Millie disappeared. Her head was now full of Mr. Wonderly and the sometimes famous clients who sought her assistance in selecting exclusive gifts for friends and dear ones. One afternoon she helped Rita Hayworth choose a vase. She was so gracious, said Millie’s mother. Millie knew she should be relieved, but she sometimes missed the days, not so long ago, when her mother was always worrying about her. It often seemed as if no one cared what she was doing anymore. Except Richard.

Richard definitely cared. He thought she shouldn’t be wasting her talents writing about navy rayon crepe dresses. (“Navy’s in town!”) Or little fur capelets. (“Take a stole to heart!”) He told her about teaching assistantships. She hadn’t even known they existed. Why, if she got one it would pay enough for her to go to graduate school, maybe even go far away. He also generously offered to write a letter of recommendation. As her instructor, of course. So it was really lucky she hadn’t been able to give him up. And wouldn’t her going back East for a doctorate be the perfect bittersweet ending for what they had had together!

Beach weather arrived. Every weekend, they drove out to Santa Monica, or sometimes Venice, and spent whole glorious days walking up and down in the surf and splashing in the sparkling water. She tanned easily and smoothly; her hair bleached in the sun and salt until she was almost a California blonde. Richard taught her how to get far enough out to turn her back and jump up just as a big wave was about to break so that she could ride it almost back to shore. The other thing she loved was to stand with Richard where the water came up to his chest, put her arms around his neck and wrap her legs around him. The water helped him support her bottom, so they could kiss like that for a long time, their bodies rubbing wet against each other, their mouths salty and their eyes laughing at each other.  Sometimes other people in the water looked at them, even though they couldn’t really see what was going on beneath the surface. Millie liked that, too.

After the beach, they would come back to the studio apartment and shower. Then she would make supper on his two-burner hotplate. She had it down to a science. A skirt steak in the frying pan on one burner, frozen vegetables (usually string beans) in the sauce pan on the other burner. And for dessert, farmer cheese mashed with diet grape jelly (so that it tasted like cheese cake without crust) and then patted into little custard cups. He thought she was a wonderful cook. When they had finished eating, she would wash up in the bathroom sink, because the alcove holding the hotplate and mini-refrigerator had no running water. That was kind of a pain but wasn’t forever, she kept reminding herself. And in bed, after they had finished with the sex part, he would tell her stories about his more unusual erotic adventures before he had met her. Rather like Scheherezade in reverse, she thought.

“And you liked that?” she would ask, incredulous but feeling at the same time quite worldly as she heard about these secret, somewhat slimy practices. (Although she certainly would have refused to do such things herself. Thank goodness he never suggested it.)

“Well, yes,” admitted Richard. He curled around her, nestling her back against his chest. We’re like spoons, she thought. That must be why they used to call it ‘spooning.’ She pressed her naked rear more firmly against his naked crotch. This was the coziest thing about being with Richard. She would miss it a lot when she went away to graduate school.

For his birthday in August, Millie bought him a charcoal grey flannel Ivy League-style suit at Bullocks. Being out of season, it was on sale. She might be going away to school soon — by now she was almost sure of it — but he deserved something better than the two terrible polyester suits he had. (They were his entire wardrobe if you didn’t count the worn tweed jacket.) Even on sale, the suit was $75. Millie was making $50 a week, paying a one-third share of the expenses at home, and trying to save at least a little bit, to build up her bank account again. So she knew she shouldn’t have spent this much money on Richard. But she did want him to look nice. And his eyes became wet when he saw what was in the gift-wrapped box. Millie had never seen a man cry. She hugged him. Richard said no one had ever been so kind to him before. After Millie dragged him back to the Bullocks’ tailor to get the cuffs to hang just right — alterations were free — he looked so wonderful in his new suit she also bought him two button-down cotton oxford shirts and a silk rep tie to go with it.

Fat envelopes came in the mail for Millie. She’d been accepted into the English Department doctoral programs at Radcliffe, Columbia, Cornell and the southern California university where Richard taught, to which she’d applied as a back-up. But there was only one offer of a teaching assistantship. From the back-up, where Richard’s recommendation had counted for something. Richard was very pleased for her. “It’s not what you know, it’s who you know,” he said.

“I’ll miss you,” said April.

“I’ll be right here, in L.A.,” said Millie. “We can still go to movies.”

“It doesn’t work that way,” said April. “Enjoy your life.”

“Oh, for God’s sake, April!” exclaimed Millie. “You’d think we’re never going to see each other!”

But April was right again. There were no more movies. Although they exchanged a few phone calls over the course of the next year, they never managed to get together. It wasn’t until much later when Millie was back in New York with Richard that she realized it. Afterwards, whenever she saw someone wearing a freshly ironed cotton blouse she thought of April, and wondered what had become of her, and if April was wondering the same about her. But by then, there was too much that Millie couldn’t talk about. So she never made a transcontinental call, or wrote.

For a while Patsy and Elena filled April’s place in Millie’s life. Both were also teaching assistants in the university’s English Department. Patsy lived in Pasadena with her parents, the last child in the nest; her two older brothers were married and living elsewhere in California. She had a low sexy voice; it was too bad she still dressed like a high school girl in socks, loafers, pleated skirts and white peter pan dickeys under her slightly pilled lambswool sweaters. Elena was one of two daughters of a Greek magnate with a chain of movie theatres all over Mexico; she spoke Greek, Spanish and fluent English with a very slight lisp. She also wore beautiful slender suits from I. Magnin with handkerchief linen blouses and David Evins pumps. Elena was at first reticent about where she lived but eventually let it be known she was staying with an older sister in a one-bedroom apartment her father had rented for them in a new luxury high-rise. “He wants us to be safe. It’s very secure there,” she explained.

Elena’s family lived in Guadalajara.  “Will you go back there, afterwards?” asked Millie.

“Quien sabe?” Elena said. “Anything can happen.”

“Like what?” asked Millie, fascinated.

Elena clarified. “My father really wants us to return to Greece. The King and Queen are back, but he is very cautious. He says he will wait and see.”  Millie didn’t know that Greece still had a king and queen. She was too busy to follow everything in the world. She just nodded wisely. Patsy nodded, too.

During her first year at the university Millie was also too busy even to think where she might be headed with Richard, or whether she should be headed anywhere at all with a man who had four children. He was just part of her life every Friday and Saturday night. (They had dropped Wednesdays, because of her teaching load. She was also taking five graduate courses for her degree.)

“Do you ever think abut getting married?” she asked the other two near the end of the second year.

“Of course,” said Patsy.

“Not really,” said Elena.

“You’re kidding!”

“I don’t have to think about it,” said Elena. “If I don’t find a good husband on my own by the time I’m twenty-five, my father will find someone.”

“And that’s okay with you?” asked Millie.

“She comes from another culture,” said Patsy.

“It’s not like in India,” explained Elena. “Where you never see the man before the wedding. My father would introduce me to a number of suitable Greek men who had already indicated interest. Perhaps he would host a series of parties. Then they would each take me out. Once or more often, depending. Afterwards my father and I would discuss my preferences. All very civilized. What’s wrong with that?”

Nothing, thought Millie, if the men were young and attractive and rich. It might be nice to have a powerful father like that. To take care of everything.

“And if I didn’t like any of them,” added Elena, “my father would introduce me to more men. My father knows a lot of people.”

Millie was already almost twenty-four. Her father wasn’t going to introduce her to anyone. And there was no one on the horizon even remotely possible. At twenty-five, she would be an old maid.

Richard’s former wife suddenly remarried and moved to Canada with her new husband. She had said nothing about these developments until after the fact. No more alimony!  Richard at once produced an ugly little ring with a tiny ruby that had been his mother’s. What could she do but let him put it on her finger?  If it doesn’t work out, she wrote in her journal the evening before their marriage, we can always divorce in two years.

She finished her course work, took the written and oral exams for the doctoral degree and they moved to New York — where she wrote advertising instead of a dissertation, thereby earning their living, while he wrote unpublishable novels. In the end, it took six years to disentangle herself. Nine years of Richard all together. By then, her twenties were over.

“What a mistake he was,” exclaimed her third husband more than half a century later.

“I was just a baby,” she said. “Didn’t have a clue. You didn’t make mistakes?”  Besides, she thought, that was then. And now is now. And everything is different than it used to be.

It always is.

FIRST HUSBAND (I of II)

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[A story.]

 Richard was thirty and Millie had just turned twenty-one when they met in an introductory television production class he was teaching nights at a large Southern California university. Millie was taking it to be ready when a better job opened up at the television station where she was currently typing stencils of soap opera scripts in the mimeograph department. Only two other women were in the class. One looked to be in her late forties; the other wore a head scarf and came from a Middle Eastern country.

At the end of the first session Richard came over to Millie, asked where she lived and if she had transportation. She said West Hollywood and that she was taking the bus. He offered to drive her home. By the time he pulled up at her front door in his 1937 Plymouth, she knew he was from New York, had been at Harvard, directed university little theater and wanted to write and direct plays on Broadway. He knew she’d come to California with her parents after graduating from Vassar a few months before, was not seeing anyone (“anymore,” she added), missed the East Coast and was unhappy with her job. They’d promised it would be a stepping-stone to editorial work, but she didn’t think she could stand the dreary typing much longer. “We’ll have to find you something more suitable,” he said. Then he asked her out.

She liked his height — important, since she was tall herself. Also his worn tweed jacket and his take-charge attitude about her wretched job. His hands on the steering wheel looked competent. His being the instructor of the class didn’t hurt, either. At college, she’d spent a whole year mooning fruitlessly over a Shakespeare professor who was sending signals he might be interested but never did anything about it. Of course, television production wasn’t Shakespeare, but still…. Richard’s hair and eyes were dark, which was good. Blond blue-eyed men made her think of Gestapo officers in movies. She said yes.

He picked her up after dinner on an evening when he had no class and took her, with apologies, to a prizefight. It was the only live thing on that night, he said, and he hated movies; they got made, went into a can and then you sat in a dark room, long after the actors had gone on to something else, watching dead film stored in a reel and projected on a screen. She herself loved movies, but when he explained that the fight tickets had been free, she allowed herself to be led to a seat, sliding past noisy blue-collar fight fans sloshing beer all over themselves. Unattractive and sweaty small men were slamming each other around in the ring. To her relief, they left before it was over. He parked a block from her house, turned smiling towards her and kissed her over the stick shift.

Oh, he was a wonderful kisser. And it had been so long. She felt herself slipping into bonelessness. His hand moved to her nipple, burning through her sweater. Moisture seeped into the crotch of her panty girdle. He whispered softly in her ear, “Do you mind the back seat?” She pushed him away and sat up straight, flushed and startled. Should she be insulted? “Um, yes, I do.” Did that need explanation? “I’m not as experienced as you think,” she added.

He seemed not to understand this. “Are you a lesbian?” he asked.

Why should he think that?  “I just haven’t had a lot of sexual experience.”

He looked at her in disbelief.  “Experience with intercourse,” she added.

“You’re not a virgin, are you?”

Ah, did she have to answer?   “It’ s complicated,” she offered. “I no longer have my –”  What should she call it? All the words seemed so Victorian. “But my college boyfriend and I, we never …. So I don’t know. How do you define virginity?”

He digested this attempted explanation in silence.

“He was being kind,” she went on. “After he, um, got in, he asked if it hurt when he moved and when I nodded, he said we could wait until next time. Then he, uh, withdrew without, you know….”

I shouldn’t need to tell him this, she thought. But she had already begun and couldn’t leave it there. “Afterwards we were together only one other time, in a hotel. He lost it there because I was nervous and laughed. That’s when we broke up. He said something was wrong with me. I think he was wrong about that, though.”  This was not entirely true. She was certain he would have had less trouble with another more spontaneous girl. “It was his first time, too. So he probably just didn’t know how.”

“All this was when?” asked Richard thoughtfully.

“About two years ago.”

“And after that?”

“Vassar’s just for girls.” She didn’t mention the Shakespeare professor.

“I’m sure there’s nothing wrong with you,” he said, patting her hand. “We’d better forget about the back seat, though.”

She felt soiled by her disclosure. But the following week in class, he winked at her while she was sprinkling Ivory Snow in front of a photograph of an Alpine village being filmed by another student. And afterwards, he drove her home again to the same place a block from where she lived, where he again kissed her enthusiastically. She was so relieved they seemed to be back on track that she giggled and said flirtatiously, “Oh, Richard, here we are kissing madly away and I don’t know the first thing about you. Why, you could be married with three children!”

To which he responded gravely: “Actually, I am married. And I have four.

And all Millie could think when she heard that – she who had been described by the Shakespeare professor in his final report as having “a mind like a steel trap” — all she could think was, “Well, he’s done it at least four times. He will know how.”

He did know how. He demonstrated his knowledge in a studio apartment opposite Paramount Studios that rented for $50 a month. Millie dipped into her small savings account to give him the first month’s rent — but only because he explained that Winifred was going back to Texas for a divorce in a few weeks, as soon as the baby was old enough to travel. Then he could stop paying rent on the house they were all living in and take over the rent of the studio. Besides, she thought of the $50 as an investment in her own sexual education.

She brought new sheets and pillowcases to their assignation in the apartment. He brought a couple of bottles of Schlitz, a package of Trojans and a tube of K-Y jelly. He asked if she wanted a drink before they went to bed. To loosen up. She said, truthfully, she didn’t like beer. (It gave her gas. This information she kept to herself.) So they pulled the Murphy bed down from the wall, made it up with her new sheets and cases, took off their clothes and climbed in without the beer. Not exactly the “first time” she had dreamed of. But this was real life and she had to stop dreaming. Besides, once she had learned everything he had to teach, she was going to leave him for someone more suitable.

Afterwards, she had very little memory of what transpired their first evening in the studio other than that he accomplished what they both had wanted, it had hurt some but not too much, and there had been no blinding explosion of joy. But she did like the kissing, touching and finger work. And he assured her that in a week or so, it wouldn’t feel tight or sore.

He was good as his word about the soreness, and also the rent. After the Murphy bed had come down from the wall a few more times, it didn’t hurt at all. And Winifred soon packed up their children and belongings and drove away to San Antonio, whereupon he moved into the studio with his clothes, papers and typewriter, and took over the monthly $50.

Blinding joy, however, remained elusive. He propped her on pillows. He stroked, slavered, and pumped away — dripping perspiration all over her. She would have faked it, if only to bring his moist exertions to an end (she did not enjoy the drops of sweat), except she didn’t know what to fake. Then he said getting rid of the rubbers might help, and got her the name of a gynecologist who reputedly had no objection to supplying unmarried girls with diaphragms. It was an embarrassing visit; when actually face to face with the doctor she had colored the truth by claiming to be engaged. But she came away equipped with a rimmed rubber barrier to conception nestled in a pretty blue plastic case, instructions for insertion and removal while sitting on the toilet, and the doctor’s congratulations on her engagement. She kept the diaphragm, spermicidal jelly, and a container of baby powder to dust it off with afterwards in Richard’s bathroom medicine cabinet, lest her mother discover any of these objects at home.

Still nothing doing in the joy department.

He found her another job, writing advertising copy for misses’ fashions at The Broadway Department Store, which paid more than typing stencils and came with a 20% employee discount. Then he found another 1937 Plymouth in which she could drive to work. Priced at $125 it was a steal, he said.

“Who is this man?” asked her mother the first time she parked noisily at the curb. Millie tried to explain, leaving out the sex part, but Harvard did not help and Richard not being Jewish was the least of it. “How many children?” asked her father. She began driving to meet Richard instead of having him pick her up. Whenever she left the house in the evening, her mother looked stricken and sighed mournfully.

Millie sent a jolly birthday card to her old college boyfriend in New York, whom she had not seen since their hotel debacle — including an upbeat report on her new job, car and man. He wrote back with gratifying promptitude that it was great to hear from her and she should get her ass back to New York right away because he was sure Richard, age thirty, was not the man for her. He was jealous! But what was he proposing? On closer scrutiny of his letter, not much. So what would she do in New York? Where would she stay? With what would she buy a ticket (perhaps, to be safe, a round-trip ticket), now that her spare cash had gone towards her own sexual education and the Plymouth? While she was reflecting on these problematic matters, the old college boyfriend wrote again to announce he was marrying a certain Celia, also from Vassar but several years older than Millie (meaning more sexually with it, thought Millie) and — a final humiliation! — they would love to see Millie at the wedding.

She was defective. She was sure if her sexual organs had worked the way they were supposed to, so she and the college boyfriend could have climaxed together, as in her thumb-eared copy of Van de Velde’s Ideal Marriage, he wouldn’t now be marrying this smirking older woman and leaving her to seek crumbs of comfort in a squeaky Murphy bed where she might never dissolve in ecstasy.

God helps those who help themselves, Millie told herself sternly. A few nights later, she bought a pint of cheap wine at Thrifty Drug on the way home from work, stuffed it into her capacious handbag and hid it under her pillow until it was time for bed.

It took forty-five minutes of rubbing herself with spit (she checked her bedside clock when she had finished) — growing so hot that whatever she was feeling could hardly be called pleasure — until she finally managed with the underside of her stiffened left index finger to trigger a small deep centered thrill beneath the heat, a delicious little thrill that mounted and mounted in intensity until she couldn’t hold it back, it came on in spite of her, like a huge wave rising, rising and o-h-h-h-h-h-h….o-h-h-h-h-h-h….o-h-h-h-h-h-h…. So that was how it was! What else could it be? She had done it! She had brought herself off! She was so elated she wanted to send a telegram: Stop the wedding!

She wasn’t that crazy, though. And once she knew what was supposed to happen, she did feel more confident when she visited Richard, even if she could never describe for him exactly the location of the spot where the small deep thrill lay waiting because it seemed to keep moving around. However, she eagerly stretched her legs apart, this way and that, to reach for it, that tiny marvelously quivering core of unbelievable pleasure, and began to enjoy herself in bed.

But did she love him? She asked her sometime journal that very question. She also tried calling him “my darling” within the privacy of its pages. It looked wrong when she read it back. He wasn’t her darling. Celia had her darling — well, her former darling. Richard was just her experienced married lover, who had hardly any money because he was sending almost all of it to Texas, and a rotten wardrobe except for the worn tweed jacket, and — as she was beginning to discover — a somewhat elastic conception of truth.

For instance: When he’d said he was from New York, he meant Syracuse, New York. When he’d said he was at Harvard, he meant after his marriage and only for one year, as a graduate student. Then he’d transferred out; his degree was from somewhere in the midwest. (And his undergraduate degree was from Clark, wherever that was.) He hadn’t written a play since graduate school. What he seemed to be working on now was a novel about his boyhood love of baseball that she, the literature major, thought so sloppy in its writing as to be hopeless. She offered to edit it for him, but after she had laboriously marked up the first chapter, he snapped at her that if she was going to take a schoolmarm approach to a work of genius he didn’t need her help thank you very much.

As for his looks, well, yes, he was considered handsome. (Her supervisor at The Broadway, a snippy unmarried woman who had to be at least thirty-five, actually cooed over his photograph.) However, stripped of his clothing…. Ah, that was another matter. His shoulders were narrow.  He had a large mole in the center of his back that she disliked. (She tried to keep her fingers away from it when she had to clasp his damp body to her.) Worst of all was the uncircumcised penis, which she hadn’t noticed as different in any way when it was ready for business but featured an excess of unpleasant foreskin when not, so that going down on him was like mouthing a quantity of crumpled rag.

At the end of the semester, Richard gave her an A plus in the television production course even though she’d stopped coming to class after leaving the television station job. Then he went away to attend the divorce hearing in San Antonio and help Winifred find a permanent place to live. (She and the children had been staying “here and there,” he said.) He’d be gone a month, until the spring term began. Millie was glad. When her mother noticed she wasn’t going out evenings, she announced she had given him up. Her mother told her father. With the advice and assistance of his mechanic, her father bought her a nice blue 1946 Chevrolet sedan previously owned by a little old lady in Pasadena who only drove it to church on Sundays. Then he helped sell her noisy Plymouth “as is” for $75. The Plymouth barely made it up a hill into the buyer’s driveway. She and her father made their getaway in his 1952 Pontiac before the buyer returned from work.

It’s not as if Millie didn’t know right from wrong, smart from stupid. But the month without Richard was so boring. She would come home from work in the Chevrolet for dinner with her parents and have to hear her father tell, between mouthfuls, what had been in the headlines that day. His jaws moved vigorously as he chewed; she could see the bones of his skull roll beneath the sides of his forehead. After he had finished his one scoop of coffee ice milk (her mother was trying to keep him on a diet), Millie would help put away the leftover pot roast or broiled chicken and dry the dishes. “Thank you, Ludmilochka,” her mother would say. “Now maybe I can relax a little with the paper myself.” Then Millie would go to her room to lie down on her bed and turn pages of public library books the contents of which she had trouble remembering even while she was still reading them. Saturdays she spent with April, the other junior copywriter, with whom she shared a small office. April was Millie’s age, a recent UCLA graduate who also lived at home, although with her mother and grandmother. You couldn’t discuss books with April — she spent her evenings ironing blouses — but she was someone to go to movies with. Once Millie made the mistake of staying at April’s house for dinner after driving her home; they had to watch The Arthur Godfrey Show with April’s mother and grandmother afterwards.

April didn’t see why Millie should give up seeing Richard before someone better came along. “Believe me, it’s no fun having no one in your life,” she said.

“Even though I told my mother it’s over?” Millie asked.

April shrugged. “What she doesn’t know won’t hurt her, will it?”

[To be concluded in next post.]

LEARNING AND LUNCHING ON MANHATTAN’S LOWER EAST SIDE

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Although many New Yorkers live in one of the four boroughs of New York City called Brooklyn, Queens, the Bronx and Staten Island, it’s usually the fifth (or first) borough — Manhattan — that most people think of in connection with all the investment banking, legal and corporate shenanigans, theater, opera, music and other entertainments that originate in New York. Manhattan is also the part of New York where many movie stars live when they aren’t making movies, unless they live in Montana because they love ranching, or London because they love British rock stars, or tax havens because they love hanging on to as much of their oodles of money as they can. (Residents of New York City are triple-taxed — by the federal government, by the state, and by the city.)

However, that’s neither here nor there, so let’s move on — but not before noting it’s out-of-sight expensive to rent or buy an apartment at market rates in Manhattan these days, and that all those folks making the big bucks in finance, law, corporate shenanigans, and entertainment may have something to do with it.  Deep-pocket demand outpacing supply, and like that.

There isn’t much supply left in Manhattan because it’s a sardine-shaped island positioned between the East River and the Hudson River, with its tail pointing into the Atlantic Ocean (and toward the Statue of Liberty) and its nose up in Washington Heights and Fort Tryon Park, pushing into Riverdale.  The very first settlers, down at the tail, were of course the Dutch, who upon landing bought it from the resident Indians for $24 in flashy trinkets and named it Nieuw Amsterdam — or so the story goes that all New Yorkers learn in kindergarten or first grade. But the Dutch pretty soon got taken over by the English, who renamed their new property New York and began to build.

Flash forward to now.  The reason demand for housing outpaces supply is that there’s no land left to build on, it’s getting harder and harder to build up higher and higher, and it costs more and more to do it. So.  Back in the mid-19th century, however, there still was land, and the wealthy built north — up Fifth Avenue towards Central Park, leaving what was south of them for the hungry and desperate immigrants sailing across the ocean to find a better life for themselves. These people, first from Ireland and Germany but soon from Eastern Europe, began piling up in what we now refer to as “the lower East Side.”  When you look at a map, that’s near the tail end of the sardine, on the right.

Initially, the houses there were one-room affairs built side by side. Unfortunately, this mode of construction soon became inadequate for the needs of the immigrant population, and responsive real estate investors then developed the idea of the apartment house — five-story multi-family buildings with footprints not much larger than those of the one-room houses they were replacing. These new five-story buildings were called “tenements,” and when built in the mid-1860’s were thought a great improvement over jamming ten or more people into a one-room structure.

But the multi-family buildings continued in use until 1935, by which time they were considered places to move out of as soon as one could. In any event, in that year municipal fire regulations banning the use of wooden staircases put an end to their occupation as dwellings.  However, they were not destroyed because the shops on the ground floors — which didn’t rely on the staircases for access — could stay open, thereby paying for maintenance of the buildings.

Accordingly, most of them still survive, now modernized and brought up to code inside, although from the street they look much as they must have looked around 1900. Today, the Lower East Side is a place to enjoy pricey shopping and eating in historic buildings.  In addition, one of the original tenement buildings — 97 Orchard Street — is now the Tenement Museum.

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[The legend, which isn’t very clear in the photograph, reads: “This 1863 tenement was home to 7,000 immigrants. They faced challenges we face today — making new lives, raising families, working for better futures. Today it houses the Lower East Side Tenement Museum, which presents the history of immigration. through the personal stories of generations of newcomers who built this country.”]

Visiting the Tenement Museum is an interesting experience, not only for out-of-towners who wish to learn something of the economic and social history of the city, but also for children born and raised in comfort and privilege, or relative privilege, who may have no idea what kinds of hardship their grandparents and great-grandparents endured in order to provide the next generation a somewhat better life than they had had.

And so when a few weeks ago I was invited to accompany two young children and their father on a trip to the Tenement Museum during one of the last fine Sundays before the arrival of cold weather, I was glad to accept.

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Unfortunately, one is not allowed to take photographs inside the museum. But there is a gift shop with many books of pictures, memorabilia and other trinkets for sale. Here are some of the books:

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If you’re nowhere near New York and therefore unlikely to visit the museum, all of these books may be purchased online at: shop.tenement.org

There are also less instructional souvenirs, probably not worth the money — but little people do have big eyes. And it all does go to support the museum:

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The museum offers eight hour-long tours, each focused on a different aspect of immigrant life in New York.  One of the daytime tours is designed for children; that was therefore the one we attended the morning we went.  It was about family living conditions at 97 Orchard Street.

First we met with an attractive young woman who said her name was Ellen.  She spoke with the children on the tour as if she were a third- or fourth-grade teacher. (She had a blackboard, and asked the children to imagine this and that, and said “Good!” a lot.)  Ellen explained the house we were in had been built in 1863-64, and had five floors, four apartments on each floor, and three rooms in each apartment. At some point in the 1920s, two toilets were installed on each floor, and pipes brought cold running water to each kitchen sink. But before then there had been no running water in the house.  The only water pump was in the back yard behind the house, so all water had to be hauled upstairs in pails. The pump was next to four wooden latrines with doors.  We were able to see all that as we exited, after the tour.

[Although the children didn’t  hear this in the morning presentation, another tour leader in the afternoon told us that the proximity of the latrines to the well water resulted in frequent deaths at 97 Orchard Street from infant diarrhea. This second tour leader also took us up one flight of stairs, now lit but originally entirely dark and then lit by a single gaslight on the wall. The stairs were no wider than two feet from wooden banister to wall. Think of that when you learn, in the next paragraph, how many people used them to go up and down in the dark, or near-dark, several times a day.)

After writing 5-4-3-2-1 on the blackboard (for number of floors, apartments per floor, rooms per apartment, and toilets per floor in one building), Ellen asked the children how many families lived in the building. Those who knew how to multiply five times four called out the answer: Twenty!   One of the adults accompanying the children on our tour then asked the average size of the families.  Ellen told us that when the house was built, there were about six or seven people in each family, but later there could be as many as ten children, meaning twelve people per apartment.  That meant there must have been between 120 and 240 people using the very narrow dark stairs every day — to go work or school, or to use the latrines, or to bring water, coal and food up by hand.

Ellen then asked the children to imagine that they and their parents had lived in Italy on a farm, but their parents had decided to come to America because they heard  life could be better here. They could bring only one suitcase with them. What would they put in it? Would it be hard to leave everything else behind? And how would they feel in a big city, when all they had known was farm life?

After those discussions, we went to visit one of the ground floor apartments, furnished as it probably was in 1916. There we were greeted by “Victoria” — played with brio by an actress in period costume impersonating a fourteen-year-old Jewish immigrant girl from Greece. “Victoria” had been living in this apartment for three years with her family. They had arrived in 1913. She had nine brothers, but she was the only girl.  However, her mother had a big belly again, so perhaps there might be another girl.  Victoria was very chatty (in her strong persuasive accent), but only in response to our questions as Italian immigrants just off the boat and wanting to know something about life in America.

“Victoria” explained how ten children and two parents could sleep in three tiny rooms when there was only one double bed in one of the rooms. (The parents and the very youngest ones slept there, in the bed and on the floor.) The older brothers slept on the floor in the other room, wrapped up in rug-like pieces of cloth with a thick nap on one side. She — the only girl — slept in a similar rug-like wrap, but apart from her brothers, on the small kitchen floor.

“Victoria” also told us that children in America had to go to school  till they were fourteen (this was 1916), but when she had arrived three years before they had put her in kindergarten because she didn’t know English. When she became fourteen she had only reached second grade.  But her father said that was enough school and now she had to work. So she helped him make aprons three days a week, and helped her mother three days a week with all the work her mother had to do to wash and clean and cook for a family of twelve. However, one day a week was for herself. On that day, for a penny, she could see a moving picture with her girlfriend. She explained that it was a series of pictures that moved and told a story, but without words, so you didn’t have to understand the language. There was music, instead. And for another penny, she could buy an ice-cream. And for a nickel, if she saved up for it, she could once in a while ride far away to a beautiful place in the north called Central Park that was like being in the country.

Someone asked “Victoria” how much rent her family paid for their nice apartment. She said it was on the ground floor, so it cost more than the ones upstairs because it wasn’t as hot in summer and they didn’t have to bring everything up and down the stairs. That’s why it was twenty dollars a month.  The ones on the top floor were only ten dollars. She also tried to impress on us how expensive it was to light the gas lamp in the kitchen: it cost 25 cents to turn on the gas meter.

We never did get around to asking about baths, or how to earn money — other than by selling from pushcarts, which was how many newcomers began. But our visit with “Victoria” was enough to give the children on the tour a vivid idea of how different her life was from theirs.  She did add at the end, though, that her father was hopeful they could move north to Harlem soon, where there were more Jewish people who spoke Ladino, which was their language in Greece.  Most of the immigrants at 97 Orchard Street spoke Yiddish.

After we thanked “Victoria,” said goodbye and left, Ellen offered us an astonishing additional piece of history.  The real Victoria — on whom “Victoria” was modeled — did soon thereafter move to Harlem with her large family, and then later to Long Island, where she married and had two children of her own, a boy and a girl.  The boy eventually became an astro-physicist who worked for NASA.

Lunch was an entirely different experience. We walked to Katz’s Delicatessen — established 1888 and verifiably kosher — at the intersection of Houston and Ludlow Streets, about four blocks away.  There, as the menus printed on the paper placemats proclaimed, one could find sandwiches, on rye or “club” bread, of hot corned beef, hot pastrami, hot brisket of beef, roast beef, tongue, turkey, salami, bologna, liverwurst, chopped liver, garlic “knobel” wurst, or any combination thereof — as well as platters of any of these things — all with dill pickles and pickled tomatoes on the side.  Also available were five kinds of hot knishes, potato kugel, noodle kugel, chicken noodle or matzo ball or split pea soup.  Still looking? You could have a plate of lox, eggs and onions.  Side dishes of steak fries, home made potato salad, coleslaw, macaroni salad and baked beans.  Hot dogs and hamburgers for the kids.  Seconds for anyone who had room for more.

Thirsty? No problem! Choose from Dr. Brown’s soda, celery tonic, cream soda (or diet cream soda) draught pitcher beer, Katz’s own seltzer, a New York egg cream, or one of the usual fizzy things — orange soda, root beer, cherry or grape soda, Pepsi (or diet Pepsi), 7-Up (or diet 7-Up).

Then — if you’re a bottomless pit — you could also order dessert:  “New York cheesecake,” carrot cake, sponge cake, chocolate cake, one of the assorted fruit pies, or a “seasonal” cake.

[I’ve left out the “tossed green salad” (which I bet no one orders) and the assorted juices, hot or iced tea and coffee. Don’t hold it against me.]

But don’t think it’s a snap to order any of this.  Remember the movie, “When Harry Met Sally?”  Remember the scene where Sally fakes an orgasm over a sandwich and a lady at the next table (actually the director Rob Reiner’s mother) tells the waiter, “I’ll have what she’s having?”  Remember that?  That was filmed at Katz’s.

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Maybe because of the movie, maybe because the servings at Katz’s are huge, maybe because Katz’s is the last of its kind — you have to FIGHT for a table:

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We got lucky.  As I pushed my way towards one of the few places against the wall where waiter service is available, the skinny little guy who lets people have one of them decided he liked me.  He said it aloud to our small group, “You can stay here.  I like her!”  I blew him a kiss. “A kiss yet!” he exclaimed, wiping his hands on his Katz’s apron.  “Extra pickles for the table!”

[You see? Sex — if you can call it that — works everywhere!]

Did I mention the servings were huge?  Yes, I did.  But I have pictorial evidence as well.  I ordered a bowl of pea soup and half a liverwurst sandwich on rye. The half a sandwich was at least three inches high.  Here’s the liverwurst I had to take out of it before eating it open-faced. [One of the younger members of our party ate the half slice of rye bread I didn’t want, but nobody was interested in the extra liverwurst.]

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I couldn’t finish the bowl of thick homemade split pea soup or my share of the table’s steak fries either, and I’m not a dainty eater:

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[The children’s father, who did manage to knock off nearly all of his hot pastrami sandwich on rye, bottom right of photo, explained he had only had a banana for breakfast and that was why he was able to finish.]

So were we sated?  Ho-ho-ho.  Passing up Katz’s New York cheesecake (under other circumstances tempting), we trotted across the street for artisinal ice-cream.  Made in a “laboratorio!”

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Thought I was kidding, didn’t you? Where else would a “gelato” be made artisinally, but in a “laboratorio?”

Decisions, decisions! So many flavors to choose from!

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But eventually each young person got a plastic dish of two small scoops for $4.25 (plus tax), and gustatory happiness was complete. (I understand their father later explained the principle of inflation whereby “Victoria’s” ice cream cost a penny and the laboratorio’s gelato cost 425 times as much — but I wasn’t there to hear the explanation, so wouldn’t dare paraphrase. I’m sure you more or less understand the gist of it already.)

Then we waddled back to the Tenement Museum for another hour-long tour, focussed on economic issues.  (It was from this second tour leader that I obtained the information provided earlier about one-room houses being replaced by “modern” tenements in the mid-nineteenth century.)  We visited a second-floor apartment as it looked when occupied by its original German tenants in 1865, and there heard about the limited social support structures then in place for a family with four children when the father took off for parts unknown. After that we moved on to one of the last apartments occupied, in 1935, after electricity had at last arrived, and cold running water, too.  There was a framed photograph of FDR on the wall here, and a radio looking very much like one I barely remember my parents owning when I was a small girl, and even a bathtub — although the tub was in the small kitchen, covered by a slab that served as a table when the tub was not in use; when a bath was contemplated, the slab needed to be removed and the tub filled with water heated in pots on the gas-fired stove.

But I’m sure after all that food at Katz’s, you’re in no mood for more sociology and economics.  So I shall leave you on Orchard Street, gazing up at the fire escapes that were a feature of every New York apartment house, even when I was growing up:

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And if you want to pick up a few more books in the museum shop before calling it a day, here are three somewhat lighter in content than the ones we looked at earlier in the day:

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Don’t tarry in the shop too long, though. I forgot to mention it’s quite a walk to the nearest subway.  Also it’s not so easy to find a taxi if you wait till four in the afternoon. That’s when the day guys go home and the evening drivers are just coming on duty.

But if you get out on the street and wave your arms wildly, maybe one will stop for you.  Especially if you’re 83 (even if you don’t quite look it), stand straight, smile while you’re waving, and have pretty good legs.  Blowing the driver a kiss as he seems to be slowing down for you can’t hurt, either.  Good luck!

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: #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

Standard

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?”