After the deaths, very close together, of my grandmother’s husband and her youngest son, my father sent me to Florida to check on my grandmother’s sanity. I found ants crawling out of cereal boxes, eggs that were black inside, and a room filled from floor to ceiling with jars of okra caterpillars floating in a broth of Martha Washington seasoning. I couldn’t diagnose her condition, but I considered myself lucky that she agreed to let me record her stories.
The two of us sat at her kitchen table and by the light of a bulb plugged into an electric socket down near the floorboards, and she told me the often-repeated stories of her life.
This is one of my favorites:
At this time I lived with Frieda, the woman who used to be my mother’s maid in Poland. Her husband told me about a job. I walked to your grandfather’s factory at 1813 Milwaukee Avenue at half past seven. Downstairs was a restaurant and I told the woman there I was looking for a job. I see the woman is looking me over. She says something in Hungarian, but I don’t know what she’s talking. I speak Yiddish and Polish and a little bit Russian, a few words of English. She gives me a cup of coffee and tells me to wait. At half past eight everybody goes up to work. After a while, I go up and the secretary says something. I don’t know what she’s talking. She points to a door and I go in.
Your grandpa sits talking on the phone to customers. He looks at me and puts down the phone. “Where did you work?” he says.
“I worked for Mr. Moskowitz. He closed up the shop and went home because his mother was sick.” I didn’t tell him that Moskowitz’s mother said she was dying, because Moskowitz asked me to marry him. Ach! I couldn’t marry a Hungarian. I couldn’t understand anything what he says.
Your grandpa says to me, “What did you put on your face?” He used the word “punim.” You understand? He talked to me in Yiddish.
I says, “Soap and water.” He thinks I painted my face with red paper, I don’t know, or paint. I was zaftig with rosy cheeks from the old country, you know?
Then he says, “What did you do on your lips?”
“What should I do with the lips? I ate breakfast and she gave me downstairs a cup of coffee so what, did I get dirty my lips?” He wanted to know if I put on the lipstick.
I understood his words but nothing else.
I told him I have to pay $7 a week for room and board so I have to get $8, but I can walk those three blocks so if it costs me no carfare I can get $7 just to pay my room and board.
He says, “Don’t worry, you’ll get your $7.”
So I see he’s interested in me working and I say, “Mister, I’d like to look in the factory, because I need a steady job. If I work here a week and you send me away, I’ll have to look again for a job.”
“Don’t worry, you’ll get a steady job.”
I looked at the factory. Oy, mein Gott! So many people! I open the door and he has a hemstitching machine, a pleating machine, and a buttonhole machine. What was going on there was a big factory. It broke up into 10 rooms.
He sits me next to a sample maker, a Polish girl, and he tells her to show me how to do. The flowers she embroidered looked alive. Right away he gives me a thread and I am sewing on beads. I already know how to work because I was with Moskowitz a couple months.
“Don’t be in a hurry,” he says. “You’ll get paid.” Your grandpa was an honest man. All right.
Then came time for everyone to go down for supper, so I went down also. I took a biscuit with a cup of coffee and I came right up. The next day I brought my sandwich so I didn’t have to pay 10 cents for a biscuit and coffee. When all the girls and boys went down I stayed and ate my sandwich.
Your grandfather comes out from his office, which looks out over the workers, and he says to me, “Jean, come here.”
I thought I did something wrong.
He says, “Have lunch with me. I wouldn’t touch you. What do you have to sit at the table where you work and eat a dry sandwich?” He sees I’m a hard worker.
I was afraid but I went up to his apartment. After all, I need the job. I see he has a kitchen, a bedroom, and a porch. On a big table was laid out corned beef and salami and bologna and hot dogs and herring and smoked fish and lox and cold cuts and all kinds cake and breads. I was stunned, you know, and I didn’t know what to do. I almost choked. He didn’t touch me. I sit at the table and he gives me a cup of coffee and a piece of bread.
He sees I wasn’t a poor girl and he says, “Where did you get those clothes?”
“I brought them from Europe.”
I had very swanky clothes from Europe because my father’s sister and brother were tailors and they had fancy clothing stores. My mother was a butcher and she gave them meat, so I had plenty clothes. The dressmakers made for a wedding and bought five yards material when they needed three, so from the two yards extra they made me a dress. And before every holiday my mother bought clothes for the children. I had boots – one pair brown and one pair beige and black patent leather slippers. I came with the best clothes like the richest person. I dressed every day in different clothes.
After our supper I clean up everything. I clean up the table and I clean up the stove and sweep up the room and wipe the tablecloth and wash the dishes. I put them away where I see a cabinet. Later your grandpa told me he said to himself, “That’s the McCoy.” But that day he didn’t say nothing.
So that was going on every day – we had our supper together.
Anyway, I’m the only one home and somebody rings the bell at six on a Friday night. Frieda locked the front door and I didn’t know how to open it. So I went to the living room and opened the window.
“Who is it?”
He says, “Mr. Veinshtein.”
I didn’t remember my boss’s name is Veinshtein. I have to ask the boss his name? It’s my business? So I look down and see who it is and I say, “What do you want?”
“Why don’t you open the door for me?”
I say, “I don’t know how and the missus went to a show.”
So I told him to come around to the back porch. It was July and very hot. I came out in my bathrobe.
He comes up and says to me, “Dress yourself. We’ll go to the ice cream parlor.” I didn’t even know what he meant. Wherever I went I was green.
While we were having a soda, he asks me the particulars about my boyfriend in Warsaw, so I told him the whole story. We come home and he walks with me halfway up the steps and I tell him to go. I didn’t want Frieda to know he came. He gives me a kiss on the hand. I was so shocked I didn’t know what to do. I was red like a beet.
The next day I go to work like every time. I come home and Frieda gives me a bawling out. She says, “Who was that man came yesterday and took you to the ice cream parlor and gave you a kiss on the hand?”
“Mine boss,” I said. “I didn’t know nothing about him coming. Why should he come? He seen me the whole day. He took me for a soda and a walk.”
“Now listen to me,” Frieda says, “you are mistaken. You think he’s going to marry you? What does he need with a greenhorn? He don’t need a greenhorn. He’s a very rich man. He was engaged to a Marshall Field’s buyer and he broke the engagement. He was engaged to this woman next door to my brother. That girl was a school – no, a piano teacher. He was engaged to her too, and for no reason at all he broke the engagement. So he’s going to get married with you? No!”
Later your grandpa told me about the buyer and the teacher and his niece. After them, he said, he was ready for me, but I didn’t know it then.
I says, “Now listen, Frieda, you just leave me alone, if you please. My boss asked me for the address and name and telephone of where I live. Your husband wrote it down and I gave my boss the ticket, that’s all. I didn’t know he would come.”
Well, she thought he goes with me to sleep and she was jealous. So, she says to me, if you’re not going to stop seeing your boss, I’m going to write your mother that you’re running around with men.
The next day I told your grandpa that he shouldn’t come to me again because Frieda is going to write home to my mother and make me a bad name. She can do it, I said. Why should I make aggravation for my mother? My mother comes from a very religious family and I don’t want to embarrass her. And I was engaged, too, so that also wouldn’t look good for my mother.
The next Saturday I come to work and your grandpa goes away. It comes five o’ clock and all the boys and girls go home to eat and I’m by myself. I didn’t know how to open the lock or close it. I was stuck there. I called Frieda and told her my boss went away and I remained by myself in that big factory. I told her I can’t go because I don’t know how to close upstairs the door and I don’t want anybody should come in and steal things.
Frieda says, “Don’t worry he’s coming right away.”
How does she know where he is?
I see him coming up. I says, “You know, Mr. Veinshtein, I had to call my missus at home, because I was very worried and afraid to leave the shop open. I don’t know how to work the keys.”
He says, “Tomorrow I’ll come for you at one o’ clock.”
“She gave you the permission?”
“Yes,” he says.
So on Sunday he comes and Frieda says to him, “You’re going away for a walk with her but in two hours you’ve got to bring her back.”
He says, “Yes, okay.”
She didn’t tell me what she said to him then, but after, it all came out. He took me to Jackson Park for a walk. In Jackson Park only rich people live. So your grandpa asks me again about my boyfriend, and he tells me that when you go over the water you don’t even have to go to a rabbi because the engagement is already broke.
So we go around the park and he says to me, “Would you marry a man a little older than you are?”
I was eighteen, nineteen. He was 45 or so, but he looked young. When he died he didn’t have a wrinkle. His face was smooth like yours. I got wrinkles. He was nice looking. When he wore a hat he looked like a million dollars. He didn’t have no hair but he was highly educated and he talked to me in a nice way. If he would try to touch me I was afraid.
I says, “I’ll tell you Mr. Veinshtein, I would marry a 200-year-old-man to get out from Frieda.”
I told him she tortured me. She had me wash clothes for three boarders and there was no machine at that time. I came home sweated up from work and I had to scrub the floors and do everything. When I didn’t do what she asked, she fell down on you like a house would fall on you.
“All right,” he says, “tomorrow I would like that you should dress up and stay on Division Street, one block from before you come to the factory. You’ll meet me at the corner. There is a car line, and after the workers will come into the factory, I’ll go with you downtown to take pictures.
Vell, I put on my blue suit and white blouse with a tie and white gloves and patent leather shoes and a hat. He didn’t recognize me. He didn’t know who I am but I recognized him. And he took me downtown. I was never in City Hall. I seen so many people in the morning at ten o’ clock. Loads of people.
So I said, “What’s this? There’s lots of gentiles here.” I see men without beards. In Europe a boy can’t shave. You have to go around with a beard.
And your grandpa says, “They are Jewish people. Here we shave.”
He tells me we’re going to take pictures to send my mother. I didn’t understand nothing. A girl typed some papers and your grandpa told me to sign, so I did.
“Where are the pictures?” I said.
He said, “Right away they’ll take the pictures.”
He takes me to the judge and I see there sits a rabbi. And your grandpa talks to the judge and gives him the paper. I don’t know nothing about it. I think you have to do all those things to take pictures because I didn’t understand what they were talking. The judge asks your grandpa questions and he answers everything and the judge writes on the paper. The judge tells your grandpa to give me a ring, so he takes out a diamond engagement ring.
The rabbi says, “You can’t get married in a diamond ring. You got to have a plain gold ring.”
Your grandpa says, “I got it.” He goes in his pocket, takes out a gold ring.
The judge says, “Put on the ring.”
Your grandpa says to me, “I have to put you on the ring before we take pictures.”
So I put on the ring and the judge tells him, “You have to kiss your bride.”
But your grandpa says, “I can’t do that because if I touch her she thinks she’s going to have a baby from me. I’m not going to kiss her here. I’ll kiss her home.”
Outside I say, “You know, Mr. Veinshtein, in Europe when you get married the boy puts on a ring on the girl. But you didn’t take pictures. You take me there and you make me sign papers. When are you going to go for those pictures?”
He laughs. “Child mine, you are married. You don’t have to go back to Frieda.”