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The Picture Show
Turning the pages of my memory notebook, I write of my childhood as the scenes come to me, treasured dreams that awaken me in an early morning. While Berdie and I sit in the picture show, I'm nine, Berdie four, from early to dark, my mother works in the dime store. About twenty times on a Saturday we learn how to untie oneself from the railroad tracks. “The train is coming!”
The owner’s daughter bangs on the piano for the struggling maiden to untie herself. The villain is hiding in the brush. Suddenly a picture of a woman with a bunch of crying children around her stops the movie and the train. “Lady, your baby is crying in the lobby,” the warning up on screen. The piano warns the kids who are choo-chooing in the aisle, bumping into the women; the boys looking for a maiden of their own to tie on the tracks. “Ma!”
A cowboy on a horse comes dashing through the mountain landscape to rescue her, the piano warning us to hide under our seats, the train is approaching, rushing right at us. The maiden is again tied to the railroad tracks. My mother finally comes to get us kids half asleep. She drags us home.
My Hearing Restored?
The dispensary doctor was bragging about his history in medicine and how he was going to restore my hearing with one sharp needle right into my ear and bravo I could go home, a whole, hearing person again.
“I would like to try it on her,” pointing that long needle to the middle of my ear. I was scared, and so was my mother. He keeps assuring us, “It’s something new. You'll have your hearing. Why not take it?” The operation done, and so am I. I walk out with a banging, ringing ear and now my left ear is nearly dead.
The war was already over when I sat at my graduating seat at La Fayette School on Augusta Street. We girls wore the white graduating dresses that we all made ourselves, Mrs. Waxman coming over to sew too; the boys wearing white shirts, the principal coming in to give the speech, “if you want to have a golden cloth in life you have to use golden threads.” My white poplin dress was golden to me when my mother pinned my graduating ribbons on it, and I stood under the tower of
Babylon under the morning glories, amid the asters and snapdragons with my diploma in my hand, combed, grown-up with puffs over my ears, and we went to have my picture taken.
“La Fayette will always love you, / We will try with might and main!”
Out Into the World
After three months of typing at Tuley High, my mother said, “You want too much clothes. You can’t go to school anymore. You have to go to work!”
The thought of winding wire on a wheel in a factory as I had already done, or standing at a moving belt at Philipsborn’s to grab a letter with a big ‘S’ on top, turning real quick to put it in a file behind me, and twisting back real quick to grab another as a long line of filers were doing, each one of us having our own letter to grab and continuing to grab and twist all day was not my idea of a beautiful world. I dreaded the alarm for toilet, another alarm go back to that moving belt. One day at lunch I ran, I escaped, to come up the passageway, my mother on the porch with Evelyn in her arms, crying in despair, “You’re home?” Crying at the sight of me in torn sweater, no blouse
underneath. She knew by my open hands that I did not wait for the money. All I could do was run.
I went out the passageway to the street heavy-hearted by my mother’s crying, and turned to my Uncle Harry’s real estate still striving and too shy to walk in until finally, “I need a job,” I said to him. It was easy. Half days, eight dollars a week. From there walking miles to Milwaukie Avenue -- upstairs Northwestern Business College where a blind principal greeted me. He stood leaning on his white cane, stood straight and faced me, glad he could not see what I looked like. “Yes?”
“I want to be a secretary,” I said. “I want to come here to school.”
“All right,” he said.
“But I can only come half days. I’m working half days.”
“All right,” he said, never moving.
“I have to give my mother six dollars and I’ll only have two dollars left. So I can give you the two dollars every week.”
“And I have to graduate in three months because I have to go to work.”
Three months, half days, two dollars a week later, I was out into the world to go working at the Western Briar Pipe Company for a boss who dictated his troubles to me while chewing on a cigar. “Be sure you know how to get the oil out from under there from the pipes,” I thought he said, with my one ear taking it down in shorthand not sure I could read it. “I’m putting my cards face upon the table. Give me the oil or give me the money.” He dictates, I fix his language out of Potomac Avenue style and know how to fix his smoking pipes and investment problems, I think. I'm already fourteen and a half and a college graduate.
I type out his oil problems from early morning to dark. Passing by his office to go to the toilet he looks at his brother and his brother looks at him. “Is this what we are paying her for? Again? Six times? And who took away my pencil from my table? My desk?”
His brother speaks no English.
“A pencil doesn’t walk away,” staring at me on my way back to the typewriter.
All I had to do was to put a piece of carbon paper between two sheets of paper and copy that same letter over and over again from that morning until night, ten hours later I stand before another man as he swivels in his chair at his desk after handing him all the letters I had done. Without a glance at them he said, “You didn’t do such a good job,” putting three dollars in my hand.
I couldn’t close my hand over the money, tired or paralyzed. I just stood there staring through my tears. Leaning back in his chair, and through my tears I thought that he was crying too.
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Often as I sit here at my tape recorder writing, I think of those times in relationship to now at ninety-six, handling old age as I do. It’s tough to be old, a friend just telling me how she goes funloving and doesn’t go near old people, and you’ve got to be tough to handle it, but the responsibilities then thrust upon me in my childhood have given me the strength to handle myself
now. It is the responsibility that you have to stand up to that makes you strong.
In 1919 when I was fourteen years old, the Spanish influenza worldwide had already taken its toll. Millions of people died, but I managed to get through it. For a while, it was touch and go. I still
remember the high fevers, my mother sponging me down, then running for the doctor – who was not there.
Still weak, and with my mother away at work, I was spending Shabbos with my grandmother Machle. Her old lady talk bored me, on and on about this flat – a real palace from what she had in Odessa. In Odessa she dug potatoes day after day and carried heavy sacks on her back. “See?” Turning to show her humpback – as if I had never noticed it before.
She was talking about prayers again. “I can’t read or write, Laya. Baruch, Ato, Adenoi, Eloheinu – if you say that much every morning, your soul comes back to you.”
“Her mother could teach her herself,” my grandfather would say, “that is, if she knew anything. What good woman divorces a husband and works in a dime store on Shabbos? Who
works on Shabbos? A slave works on Shabbos, not a free man. It's a shaygets who likes to count money on Shabbos.”
The wood crackled in the stove and the old grandfather clock high on the wall ticked wearily, doomed for firewood. The basement was already filled with holtz to outlast Chicago winters. My grandfather was always on the look out for fallen branches on the street. He chopped away in the
yard until he coughed angrily “Pollacken! Pollacken! Pogroms!”
He used to say: “It is always good to walk alongside a full wagon – but not on Shabbos. Then you may have to handle money.” A man of study and prayer, he was now in Shul and my grandmother at home because of me. She was story-telling again. “Before Rosh Hashanah,” she said, “the King came into the field and I said to him, put me in the Book I should have a good year. You see these holes? My brothers are all gone and I am all alone.”
A few months later she was standing under the huppe with Hersh who was seven feet minus a few inches – if you asked him. Of the eight children she bore him, my mother Chaya was the worst.
A lost soul, every Shabbos she gets farblondjed with customers counting money. He had no use for me either, selling men’s handkerchiefs on Shabbos at Wieboldt’s for five cents and counting up to thirty cents when selling six.
The world was created in six days for a reason. But my grandfather never said what reason. I thought maybe for my grandmother’s chicken soup and kreplach and the thick slices of challah sheput before me. “Eat,” she said, turning to the Siddur on the sideboard and mumbling a few words.
As soon as I could I escaped and headed for Milwaukee Avenue. Saturday it was jammed withpeople, drums, trumpets. “Hooli! Hooli!” my grandfather's words ringing. “The whole world is flat and full of hooligans.” I stood and watched the parade for a while, then turned to a dress shop
window to see the dress of my dreams. Bravely walking in just as the salesgirl was taking that dress, my dress, out of the window and spreading it gracefully before some young ladies.
“Just look at this orange yoke,” she was saying. “And the beading on the white. Just likesatin.”
They followed her and the dress into a back room. I turned away. That was my reflection rushing by the window into the hooli in the street. I half ran, half walked, and ran again.
I was out of breath when I turned into Potomac Avenue and saw my grandmother with her Shabbos friends on a porch across the street. She had already spied me too. A signal to the heavens,“It’s Laya.” She came running, holding on to the long-stemmed rose on her straw hat that made her look higher. And then held her gold watch and chain as her black Shabbos dress swept the streettoward me.
“Where were you? Where did you go? Laya?”
I felt as if some jelly candy from the dime store had fallen out of the bag and smeared sticky all over me. I didn’t know what to say or what to do. I said, “Milwaukee Avenue.”
“I saw a dress,” I managed to say.
“On Shabbos, a dress? Milwaukee Avenue? Couldn’t you go tomorrow?”
“I’m working tomorrow typing for the real estate. I promised, and then the dress will be gone.”
I saw the strange look on her face. I wanted to run - but where? My mother was at work.
“Coom,” she said. I followed the wave of her hand into the hallway. Eight dark steps up to the flat. She walked ahead of me, the rose in her hat tumbling back and forth.
She opened the door. I followed her in. She turned to me. Was the King in the field coming to judge me? I would have to run away. I would be lost forever.
“How much was it?” she said.
“Eight dollars.” Afraid of the sound of my own voice.
“Eight dollars?” Looking to the door – as if listening for footsteps – then hurrying to the bedroom and returning with a knotted handkerchief. Going to the table where my grandfather would stand to make kiddish. She stood there and untied the knot and then counted out one dollar at a time into my hand.
“Go buy it, Laya. Go buy that dress now.”
She closed my hand over the money into my pocket, and lifted herself up to the rose -- and higher.
I kept that dress in a box until I was sixteen.
“It’s Rosh Hashanah,” my mother said. “I want you to wear it today. What are you saving it for?”
At the same time a neighbor is calling. “Mrs. Silverberg? Mrs. Silverberg? I’ve got something to show you. Remember? And bring Laura.”
There sat this young boy with his mother. Their corn beef, candy, ice cream, cigarette, cigarstore was closed for the holiday. He sat there working his hands nervously.
“And his name is Mannie.”
“Hello. Good yontiff.”
“Good yontiff,” we all echoed.
I felt so proud, so glamorous in that white dress.
Every year on Rosh Hashanah Mannie would say, “Well, Laura, how many years is it now since we met?”
Adding up to year 2003, I would now have to say, “Mannie, it is eighty-two years ago today.