"Tell me about when you were a little girl," I often asked my mother. It was my "open, sesame" to a whole wonderful
My mother and father sometimes spoke words I couldn't understand. Though their accents in English sounded natural to me, I was aware that their pronunciations were different from those of other children's parents. Theirs were Jewish accents.
As I grew older, I heard more and more of the chapters that filled the book inside her. The pictures in my mind of the people she told about took on substance - as if I had known them in a different time and place. I wanted to know more, always more, to be a part of all her life. Her there and then as well as her now. To live her life as well as my own.
Born in Iasi, Romania, in 1890, at the age of eight my mother was given to her Aunt (Mime, inYiddish) Mariam, who was childless, to be raised in Stanislaw, Austria, where she remained until 1905.
I wanted to know more, to be a part of all her lifeMy mother's oldest brother Itzick was the first of my mother's immediate family to come to America. In 1899, when he was eighteen, Mime Ruchel sent him a ticket to come to Key West where she and her husband Veezee (Velvel Zalman) had settled.
Itzick worked for Uncle Veezee in order to send for his next two brothers, Julius and Isroel. Even with all three of them working, it was 1907 before they were able to send for the rest of the family. Since my mother did not deal in dates, I deduced almost all of them backwards either from her wedding in 1908 or from dates on tombstones in the cemetery in Jacksonville, Florida ... ways Jews have always relied on to record their existence. Itzick, born in 1881, came to Key West to escape the draft in Romania in 1899 when he was eighteen years old.
Though not given to vanity, my mother tells in her memoir that at age thirteen she looked sixteen and already had an admirer. The photograph of her taken at about that age shows her in a long-sleeve dress holding a book in her right hand. She is wearing dark silk stockings and shiny black shoes with a strap across the instep. Her expression is so serious as to be almost a frown, but her self-possession is unmistakable. In all of her early photographs there is a presence, a dignity already evident. Her bearing is that of a person perfectly herself. Not until much later does an unexpected playfulness appear.
I can't tell your story, Mama, only you can Some of my mother's features never changed very much: her mouth, firm, generous and beautifully shaped, was pliant. I never saw it set hard or rigid. Nor was her strong jaw sharp. She never liked her nose, which was large like her father's. But it was her eyes which were her most compelling feature. Her forehead, high and slightly rounded, made a perfect oval with her cheeks and chin; a slight widow's peak of fine black hair was etched against her very white skin. Her eyebrows, shaped like a pair of wings in perfect formation, drew your attention to her wide-set animal-warm brown eyes, eyes that could fix you with a look both soft and penetrating at the same time. The look of a lioness. "Your eyes speak," a man she admired once told her, and she repeated it to me more than once.
One day three or four years before she died, I was on a visit to Miami Beach where she and my father lived the last part of
their lives together. She saw me working on a play. "Why don't you write my story," she said, fixing me with those lioness eyes.
"It's very interesting."
"I can't tell your story, Mama. Only you can. Why don't you write it yourself?"
With no more discussion than that, the next morning she sat down at the dining room table and began. She wrote in pencil on my
brother Isadore's business stationery, from which she had first cut the printed name and address. Every day when her morning chores were done, I watched her sit down and write. Day after day she dedicated herself to the task, and it was my turn to wonder -- how would she tell what was inside her? Words had never been her way. It took her more than a week. Finally done, she showed me her work. Sixty-seven pages.
"What was this person's name?" I asked, and noted her answer above the pronoun she had used. Or, "What is a katsap?", which was her father's occupation.
"He supplied meat to kosher butchers."
Other than that, I did nothing. I put away her sixty-seven pages.
After her death, I thought of her manuscript often and with so much pain of loss I could not bear to open the manila envelope
and see her angular writing on the pages. It lay in a drawer gathering importance, and waiting for me. Thirteen years would pass before I could take it out again and look at it. Then began years and more years of trying to write her story. I had no idea what I was undertaking. Time after time, trying and failing, I repeated to myself what I had said to her: "I can't write your story, Mama. Only you can." It was no comfort to remind myself that she would not have thought I was letting her down… it was something I had to do.
I read and reread her pages. In some cases what she didn't say was more important than what she said. In keeping with her
reticence, she indicated only sketchily the events that caused her the greatest suffering. Nor did she include many of the stories she had told me through the years. I would fill in the gaps, she knew. I began to put together facts, as if I were writing a detective story. I found clues everywhere. Photographs of cities at that period suggested the way the shimmering haze of Iasi's streets aglow with gaslight must have ooked to her; the dress and manner of the people she saw… Jews, peasants, gypsies who were living in Central Europe when she lived there, the sight of a water-carrier swinging his full buckets on either side of a long pole that rested across his shoulders braced by his hands. Didn't he call out in Yiddish, "Vassertrayger, Vassertrayger," to announce that he was there? Didn't
she run down the stairs of her apartment building with a pail to meet him? I could see her fetching water, buying groceries across the street, already helper to her mother when she was six years old. Wherever I saw a building that still had folded-away shutters, I felt a kind of recognition: shutters like that had once covered the shop windows she liked to peer through, before they were made of glass. Antique children's shoes with buttons instead of laces were like the ones her little brother Ruben had worn and I could see her buttoning them as she dressed him. Everything from the turn of the twentieth century told me about her "there and then." The fashionable, full upswept hairdo seen in old magazines shows up in photographs of her as a young woman; the Victorian style of her clothes… she loved beautiful clothes. Books, articles in newspapers and magazines, TV documentaries, movies, paintings- all offered me pieces for my mosaic. I was confident that everything would find its place.
After her death, I thought of her manuscript often An avid collector, I gathered more and more, recreating their lives and building their world anew within myself. Slowly it became of a piece inside me and little by little, I began to put it down on paper.
I asked my older brother and sisters, my cousins, to tell me what they remembered of the early years in Jacksonville, Florida, and I filled notebook after notebook with their stories. I talked to older people who had been part of my parents' world and wrote down their stories too. They were all part of the bridge generation- the largest emigration of Jews to America in history, who came during the first twenty years of the nineteen hundreds. Even as I was recording their story, the generation was vanishing.
History books told me that Jews in Romania at that time were the worst off of any in Europe. Yet my parents told me more about the good things than the bad. "Wine as thick as syrup," my father said, leaving it to me to learn that it was called Aligote and that Iasi was known for it. "Wonderful Kashkaval and Brindze cheese!"
To my imagination was left the task of picturing the hardships that had caused my mother to be given away to an aunt and raised in a foreign country and my father, as a child of nine, his belly swollen out from starvation, to have to leave school to go to work.
I traveled to Romania and, miraculously, found the house in Iasi that had belonged to my father's family for close to three
hundred years- probably from the time Chmielnicki chased the Jews out of Poland. By the time I got there, the Nazis had long since destroyed the old Jewish cemetery and, with it, any trace of my grandmother Beila Bercovici's grave. Her three-hundred-year-old little blue house, however, held traces for me of my father's life. The pear tree I found growing in the back garden must have been there when he was a boy, planted, perhaps, by Beila herself.
My father and mother returned to Europe to visit Beila in that little house and my mother's Mime Mariam in Stanislaw, Austria. They actually arrived in Berlin, three young children in tow, on the very day Germany called for mobilization at the beginning of World War I. The Romanian government still had not, at that time, agreed to an immigration treaty with the United States, and my father was, therefore, considered by them to be a Romanian Jew, American passport notwithstanding. My mother recounted little about the political situation in her sixty-seven pages. True to her nature, she wrote and spoke more about the illness of her six-month-old baby, Edith.
Beila came to the United States but was sent back to Romania. Trachoma. Probably contracted, as was commonly the case, on the ship itself. The story of her coming to America is heart-breaking. With deep-set fathomless black eyes and prominent cheek bones, Beila was touchingly beautiful. I wrote about her and all of my mother's family as I came to know them. As they lived again for me.
My mother's longing, needs, hopes and dreams found their place in America's South. All that was best in Southern tradition
suited her: the refinement, gentility, graciousness, love of natural beauty and a soft manner were there for her. In the South her best was at home and it was there that she finally belonged.
At my father's funeral I stood at the gravesite and thought of them resting again side by side. With his death, their world was gone, except what remained in the memories of those who had shared a part of their living, and those who will share it now once again.