Authors: Anita Diamant
Thanks to Janet Rustow, MSW, at the Faulkner Breast Centre for her thorough and generous
consultation on the emotional and medical course of breast cancer treatment. I also
learned a great deal about radiology treatment for breast cancer from Dr. Tania I.
Lingos, Sarah Susi, and Karen Donnelan at the South Suburban Oncology Center; and
from Karen Thompson. For careful readings and insightful comments, thanks to William
Camann, MD, Judi Hirshfield-Bartek, RN, MS, Beth Israel Deaconess BreastCare Center
and to Judith Paley, MD, of femailhealthnews.com.
The members of my writing group (past and present) were indispensable: Janice Brand,
Ellen Grabiner, Marcy Herschmann, Amy Hoffman, Renee Loth, and Marla Zarrow. Louisa
Williams was an expert and thoughtful editor at a crucial juncture.
I am indebted to Amanda Urban at ICM for hooking me up with my wonderful editors,
Sarah McGrath and Nan Graham, at Scribner.
Thanks to all of these experts, cheerleaders, hand-holders, family members, and friends
(you know who you are and which is which): Susan Beattie, Emilia Diamant, Helene Diamant,
Judith Himber, Judy Jordan, Karen Kushner, Stephen McCauley, Valerie Monroe, Regina
Mooney, Edward Myers, Marlee Nelson, Rabbi Barbara Penzner, Jane Redmont, Rabbi Liza
Stern, Sebastian Stuart, Diane Weinstein, Tom Wolf, Bob Wyatt, and Ande Zellman.
Thanks again and always to my husband for his unconditional love.
Continue reading for a preview of Anita Diamant’s
The Boston Girl
Available from Scribner December 2014
Ava, sweetheart, if you ask me to talk about how I got to be the woman I am today,
what do you think I’m going to say? I’m flattered you want to interview me. And when
did I ever say no to my favorite grandchild?
I know I say that to all of my grandchildren and I mean it every single time. That
sounds ridiculous or like I’m losing my marbles, but it’s true. When you’re a grandmother
And why not? Look at the five of you: a doctor, a social worker, two teachers, and
Of course they’re going to accept you into that program. Don’t be silly. My father
is probably rolling over in his grave, but I think it’s wonderful.
Don’t tell the rest of them, but you really are my favorite and not only because you’re
the youngest. Did you know you were named after me?
It’s a good story.
Everyone else is named in memory of someone who died, like your sister Jessica, who
was named for my nephew Jake. But I was very sick when you were born and when they
thought I wasn’t going to make it, they went ahead and just hoped the angel of death
wouldn’t make a mistake and take you, Ava, instead of me, Addie. Your parents weren’t
that superstitious, but they had to tell everyone you were named after your father’s
cousin Arlene, so people wouldn’t give them a hard time.
It’s a lot of names to remember, I know.
Grandpa and I named your aunt Sylvia for your grandfather’s mother, who died in the
flu epidemic. Your mother is Clara after my sister Celia.
What do you mean, you didn’t know I had a sister named Celia? That’s impossible! Betty
was the oldest, then Celia, and then me. Maybe you forgot.
Nobody told you? You’re sure?
Well, maybe it’s not such a surprise. People don’t talk so much about sad memories.
And it was a long time ago.
But you should know this. So go ahead. Turn on the tape recorder.
My father came to Boston from what must be Russia now. He took my sisters, Betty and
Celia, with him. It was 1896 or maybe 1897; I’m not sure. My mother came three or
four years later and I was born here in Boston in 1900. I’ve lived here my whole life,
which anyone can tell the minute I open my mouth.
Where I lived in the North End when I was a little girl wasn’t so quaint. The neighborhood
smelled of garbage and worse. In my building to go to the bathroom, we had to walk
down three flights from our apartment to the outhouses in back. Those were disgusting,
believe me, but the stairways were what really scared me. At night, you couldn’t see
your hand in front of your face and it was slippery from all the dirt and grease.
One lady broke a leg on those steps and she never walked right again afterward.
In 1915, there were four of us living in one room. We had a stove, a table, a few
chairs, and a saggy couch that Mameh and Papa slept on at night. Celia and I shared
a bed in a kind of narrow hallway that didn’t go anywhere; the landlords chopped up
those apartments to squeeze in more people so they could get more rent. The only good
thing about our place was that we had a window that looked out on the street so there
was a little light; a lot of the apartments faced the air shaft, where it was always
the middle of the night.
Mameh didn’t like it when I looked out the window. “What if someone saw you there?”
she’d say. “It makes you look like you have nothing better to do.”
I didn’t understand why it bothered her but I kept my mouth shut so I wouldn’t get
We were poor but not starving. Papa worked in a belt factory as a cutter and Celia
was a finisher at a little shirtwaist factory upstairs over an Italian butcher shop.
I don’t think we called it a sweatshop back then, but that’s what it was. And in the
summer, it was steaming hot. When my mother wasn’t cooking or cleaning, she was mending
sheets for the laundry across the street. I think she got a penny apiece.
Together, they made enough money for rent and food. Mostly I remember eating potatoes
and cabbage, and I still can’t stand the smell of cabbage. Sometimes Mameh took in
a boarder, usually a man right off the boat who needed a place to flop for a few nights.
I didn’t mind because she didn’t yell so much if one of them was in the house, but
they made Celia nervous.
Celia was “delicate.” That’s what Mameh called her. My sister was thin and had high
cheekbones like my father, blue eyes, and fine brown hair like him, too. She would
have been as pretty as the drawings in the magazines, but she was so shy that she
winced when people talked to her, especially the men Mameh pushed at her.
Celia didn’t like to go out of our house; she said it was because her English was
so bad. Actually she understood a lot but she wouldn’t talk. My mother was like that,
too. Papa managed a little better, but at home we only spoke Yiddish.
When Mameh talked about Celia to the neighbors, she said, “Twenty-nine years old already,”
like it was a death sentence. But in the next breath she’d brag, “My Celia has such
golden hands, she could sew the wings on a bird. And such a good girl: modest, obedient,
never gives me any trouble.”
I was “the other one.” She never talked about Betty at all.
“The other one is almost sixteen years old and still in school. Selfish and lazy;
she pretends like she can’t sew.” But I wasn’t pretending. Every time I picked up
a needle I stabbed myself. One time, when Mameh gave me a sheet to help with her sewing,
I left so many little bloodstains she couldn’t wash it out. She had to pay for the
sheet, which cost her I don’t know how many days of work. I got a good smack for that,
I can tell you.
You wouldn’t know Celia and I were sisters from looking at us. We had the same nose—straight
and a little flat—and we were both a little more than five feet. But I was built like
my mother, solid but not fat, and curvy starting at thirteen. I had Mameh’s thin wrists
and her reddish-brownish hair, which was so thick it could break the bristles on the
brush. I thought I was a real plain Jane except for my eyes, which are like yours,
Ava: hazel, with a little gold circle in the middle.
I was only ten years old when my oldest sister, Betty, moved out of the house. I remember
I was hiding under the table the day she left. Mameh was screaming how girls were
supposed to live with their families until they got married and the only kind of woman
who went on her own was a “kurveh.” That’s “whore” in Yiddish; I had to ask a kid
at school what it meant.
After that, Mameh never said Betty’s name in public. But at home she talked about
her all the time. “A real American,” she said, making it sound like a curse.
But it was true. Betty had learned English fast and she dressed like a modern girl:
she wore pointy shoes with heels and you could see her ankles. She got herself a job
selling dresses downtown at Filene’s department store, which was unusual for someone
who wasn’t born in this country. I didn’t see her much after she moved out and I missed
her. It was too quiet without Betty in the house. I didn’t mind that there was less
fighting between her and Mameh, but she was the only one who ever got Celia and my
father to laugh.
Home wasn’t so good but I liked going to school. I liked the way it felt to be in
rooms with tall ceilings and big windows. I liked reading and getting As and being
told I was a good student. I used to go to the library every afternoon.
After I finished elementary school, one of my teachers came to the apartment to tell
Mameh and Papa I should go to high school. I still remember his name, Mr. Wallace,
and how he said it would be a shame for me to quit and that I could get a better job
if I kept going. They listened to him, very polite, but when he was finished Papa
said, “She reads and she counts. It’s enough.”
I cried myself to sleep that night and the next day I stayed really late at the library
even though I knew I’d get in trouble. I didn’t even want to look at my parents, I
hated them so much.
But that night when we were in bed, Celia said not to be sad; that I was going to
high school for one year at least. She must have talked to Papa. If she said something
was making her upset or unhappy, he got worried that she would stop eating—which she
did sometimes. He couldn’t stand that.
I was so excited to go to high school. The ceilings were even higher, which made me
feel like a giant, like I was important. And mostly, I loved it there. My English
teacher was an old lady who always wore a lace collar and who gave me As on my papers
but kept telling me that she expected more out of me.
I was almost as good in arithmetic, but the history teacher didn’t like me. In front
of the whole class he asked if I had ants in my pants because I raised my hand so
much. The other kids laughed so I stopped asking so many questions, but not completely.
After school, I went to the Salem Street Settlement House with a lot of the other
girls in my grade. I took a cooking class there once but mostly I went to the library,
where I could finish my school-work and read whatever I found on the shelves. And
on Thursdays, there was a reading club for girls my age.
This is probably where the answer to your question begins.
“How did I get to be the woman I am today?” It started in that library, in the reading
club. That’s where I started to be my own person.
is a prize-winning journalist whose work has appeared regularly in the
Boston Globe Magazine
magazine. She is the author of six books about contemporary Jewish practice. Her
The Red Tent
, was a national bestseller and won the Booksense Book of the Year award. Diamant
lives in Massachusetts with her husband and daughter.
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