Authors: Jennifer Weiner
Jo couldn’t explain. She didn’t have the words to say how she felt about
, how the lacy socks itched and the fancy shoes pinched and the elastic insides of the sleeves left red dents in her upper arms. When she was dressed up, Jo just felt wrong, like it was hard to breathe, like her skin no longer fit, like she’d been forced into a costume or a disguise, and her mother was always shushing her, even when she wasn’t especially loud. She didn’t care about looking pretty, and she didn’t like dresses. Her mother, she knew, would never understand.
“It’s our house,” Jo’s mother was saying, her voice rich with satisfaction.
“The American Dream,” said Jo’s dad. To Jo, the house didn’t seem like much of a dream. It wasn’t a castle with a moat, no matter what Bethie had said, or even a mansion, like the ones in Grosse Pointe that Jo had seen when the family had driven there for a picnic. It was just a regular house, square-shaped and boring red, with a triangle-shaped roof plopped on top, like the one in her “Dick and Jane” readers, on a street of houses that looked just the same. In their old neighborhood, they’d lived in an apartment. You could walk up the stairs and smell what everyone was cooking for dinner. The sidewalks had bustled with people, kids, and old men and women, people with light skin and dark skin. They’d sit on their stoops on warm summer nights, speaking English or Yiddish, or Polish or Italian. Here, the streets were quiet. The air just smelled like air, not food, the sidewalks were empty, and the people she’d seen so far all had white skin like they did. But maybe, in this new place, she could make a fresh start. Maybe here, she could be a good girl.
Except now she had a problem. Her dad had borrowed a camera, a boxy, rectangular Kodak Duaflex with a stand and a timer. The plan was for them all to pose on the steps in front of
the house for a picture, but Sarah had made her wear tights under their new dresses, and the tights had caused Jo’s underpants to crawl up the crack of her tushie, where they’d gotten stuck. Jo knew if she pulled them out her mother would see, and she’d get angry. “Stop fidgeting!” she would hiss, or “A lady doesn’t touch her private parts in public,” except everything itched her so awfully that Jo didn’t think she could stand it.
Things like this never happened to Bethie. If Jo hadn’t seen it herself, she wouldn’t have believed that her sister even had a tushie crack. The way Bethie behaved, you’d expect her to be completely smooth down there, like one of the baby dolls Bethie loved. Jo had dolls, too, but she got bored with them once she’d chopped off their hair or twisted off their heads. Jo shifted her weight from side to side, hoping it would dislodge her underwear. It didn’t.
Her father pulled the keys out of his pocket, flipped them in the air, and caught them neatly in his hand. “Let’s go, ladies!” His voice was loud and cheerful. Bethie and Sarah climbed the stairs and stood in front of the door. Sarah peered across the lawn, shadowing her eyes with her hand, frowning.
“Come on, Jo!”
Jo took one step, feeling her underwear ride up higher. Another step. Then another. When she couldn’t stand it anymore, she reached behind her, grabbed a handful of pink gingham, hooked her thumb underneath the underpants’ elastic, and yanked. All she’d meant to do was pull her panties back into place, but she tugged so vigorously that she tore the skirt away from its bodice. The sound of the ripping cloth was the loudest sound in the world.
“Josette Kaufman!” Sarah’s face was turning red. Her father look startled, and Bethie’s face was horrified.
“I’m sorry!” Jo felt her chest start getting tight.
“What’s the matter with you?” Sarah snapped. “Why can’t you be good for once?”
“Sarah.” Ken’s voice was quiet, but angry.
“Oh, sure!” said Sarah, and tossed her head. “You always take up for her!” She stopped talking, which was good, except then she started crying, which was bad. Jo stood on the lawn, dress torn, tights askew, watching tears cut tracks through her mother’s makeup, hearing her father’s low, angry voice, wondering if there was something wrong with her, why things like this were always happening, why she couldn’t be good, and why her mom couldn’t have just let her wear pants, the way she’d wanted.
er address was 37771 Alhambra Street, and her phone number was UNiversity 2-9291 and her parents’ names were Sarah and Ken Kaufman and her sister was Josette and her name was Elizabeth Kaufman, but everyone called her Bethie.
Her sister went to school in the morning and came home for lunch, and ate her sandwich and watched
Kukla, Fran and Ollie
in the living room until it was time to go back, but Bethie had a late birthday and wouldn’t start school until next September, so she spent her days at home, with her mother. Tuesdays were wash days. Bethie’s job was to help separate the white clothes from the colored ones, down in the basement, and hand her mother clothespins from the Maxwell House coffee can when her mother hung the wet wash on the rotating aluminum hanger in their backyard. On Wednesdays, Mommy would iron, and Bethie would hold the bottles of water and starch, and would sometimes be allowed to spritz the clothes. Mommy would lick the tip of her finger and touch it lightly to the iron, listening for the hiss to see if it was hot enough, but Bethie wasn’t allowed to touch the iron, not ever. The radio played in the kitchen all day long,
usually big-band music and also the news on WJBK, “the sound of radio in Detroit, fifteen hundred on your dial.” Thursdays were marketing. Mommy would push a wheeled metal cart two blocks up to Rochester Avenue, where they would get a chicken or steak or chops at the kosher butchers and dish soap at the five-and-dime. Bethie would follow along, one hand on the side of the cart, watching her mommy squeeze tomatoes and sniff cantaloupes and lift up a plucked chicken’s wing to peer underneath, always with a suspicious look on her face, like the foods were trying to trick her. Everyone smiled at Bethie, and pinched her cheeks, and said what a pretty, well-behaved girl she was. Bethie would smile, and Mommy would sigh, probably thinking about Jo, who was a Trial.
Fridays were Bethie’s favorite, because Fridays were Shabbat. For breakfast on Fridays, Bethie’s mother would use a juice glass to cut out a hole in the middle of a slice of bread. “Wonder Bread builds strong bodies eight ways,” Buffalo Bob would say to the kids on
The Howdy Doody Show
. He’d tell them to make sure that their kitchen had the bread with the red, yellow, and blue balloons, but at Bethie’s house they ate the bread that Zayde gave them, bread that he’d baked at the bakery where he worked. Mommy would spread margarine on both sides of the slice, then put it into the frying pan, where it would sizzle. On the best days, there’d be a new package of margarine, and Bethie would be allowed to break the capsule of yellow dye and squish it all around until all the margarine was yellow-colored. She’d watch Mommy’s hands as she’d crack an egg on the side of the pan and drop it neatly into the hole in the bread. The egg would cook, the bread circle would get toasty-brown, and Sarah would shout for Jo to make her bed and wash her face and come to the table, she was already late. When Jo finally took her seat, the eggs and bread would go onto the plates, and the browned bread circle would sit on top of the egg. That was an egg with a top hat.
When breakfast was finished, and dishes and juice glasses had been washed and put in the drainer to dry, Mommy would make a lunch for Jo to take to school, and Bethie would change out of her flannel nightgown, folding it under her pillow for the
coming night. She’d make her bed and get dressed, and her mommy would zip her dress and do her hair. Bethie would hold perfectly still while Sarah combed, parting her hair down the center and dividing it into pigtails, tying them with ribbons to match Bethie’s dress. She would watch her mother pull the curlers from her own hair, until rows of shiny brown ringlets hung on each side of her face, before she combed the curls into waves and sprayed them stiff. Mommy would put on a dress and clip nylon stockings to her garters. She would puff perfume out of an atomizer and step through the mist, explaining, “You never put perfume right on your skin, you just mist and step through.” Sometimes, when Sarah wasn’t watching, Bethie would run through the leftover mist of Soir de Paris, hoping to smell as good as her mommy.
At ten o’clock in the morning, Mae would come. Mae was old, probably forty, but her mother called Mae “the Girl.” Mae called her mother “ma’am.” Mae had dark skin, a golden brown that was dotted with darker brown moles, and her eyebrows were plucked to skinny arches that she darkened with black pencil. Her hair was shiny and black and lay in gleaming waves against her head and cheeks. Mae would tune the radio to WJLB 1400 and listen to songs like “Blue Shadows,” “Fool, Fool, Fool,” and “Please Send Me Someone to Love.” She’d sing along with the radio while she ironed the Kaufmans’ clothes. When the ironing was done, she’d cover her hair with a brightly colored scarf before vacuuming the carpets and mopping and waxing the floors.
Sometimes Mae would bring her own little girl with her. Mae’s daughter’s name was Frieda. Frieda was skinny as a string bean, with knobby, scabbed knees and the same golden-brown skin as her mother, and she wore her hair in two braided pigtails that stuck out from the sides of her head. Frieda was the same age as Jo, and she was wild. She and Jo would go racing around the backyard, climbing the cherry tree, playing Cowboys and Indians, coming back all sweaty and out of breath, with grass stains on their clothes. Bethie preferred to stay inside and play with her paper dolls, but Jo adored Frieda, and she’d stay in the kitchen
with Mae even when Frieda wasn’t there, handing Mae things to iron and singing to the radio.
The Kaufmans had two cars, the New Car and the Old Car. The New Car, which lived in the garage, was that year’s new-model Ford, purchased with a discount, because Bethie’s daddy worked in the accounting office of the Ford plant. The Old Car, parked in the driveway, was the previous model, handed down to Sarah. When Bethie was five, the Old Car was a Ford Tudor sedan, with four doors and a pistachio-green body and a darker-green hardtop roof. On Fridays, Mommy would climb into the driver’s seat and lean forward with her hands tight on the wheel as she would drive them carefully from their new home to the old neighborhood, a mile away, where they used to live and where Sarah’s parents, Bethie’s
, still lived, in a three-bedroom apartment on the corner of Rochester and Linwood, where the white-painted walls were stained brown from Zayde’s cigars, and the air smelled like tobacco, yeast, and flour, and good things cooking.
Bubbe and Zayde were old and small and wrinkly, their skin the color of walnut shells. They looked like the set of wooden Russian nesting dolls that stood on the mantel at home, because it seemed like every week, they had turned into newer, smaller versions of themselves. Zayde had stooped shoulders, and he wore black pants pulled up halfway to his chest and belted tight and short-sleeved white shirts so thin that Bethie could see the U-shaped neckline of his undershirt. The fringes of his
, his prayer shawl, would hang from the hem of his shirt. Bubbe was even shorter than her husband, even more stooped. Her thin iron-gray hair was pulled back and knotted at the base of her neck, and her dresses were shapeless and black. She would pinch Bethie’s cheeks and call her
, and she’d always be baking something sweet when they arrived. She would slip Bethie little bits of dough, pillowy soft and crunchy with sugar, and Bethie would eat them when her mother wasn’t looking.
Bubbe and Zayde were very old. They hadn’t been born in America, like Bethie and her mother. They only spoke Yiddish,
no English, and so Mommy would do their banking and pay their bills. While Mommy and Bubbe would sit at the dark wooden kitchen table with the checkbook, Zayde and Bethie would make the challah. With smiles and gestures, Zayde would show Bethie how to sprinkle the yeast over warm water and spoon in a little honey to make the yeast bloom. Bethie would tip a cup of oil into the giant wooden bowl. Zayde would crack the eggs and give Bethie a whisk to stir with. Zayde was small, but his gnarled hands were strong. He’d mix in the flour and, with quick motions with the heels of his hands, knead the dough, pushing it this way and that, flipping it over, gathering it up, and kneading it some more. When the bread was back in its oiled bowl, covered up and rising in the warmed oven, Bethie would go to the living room, where Bubbe kept a shoebox full of paper dolls for Bethie to dress up and colored pencils for her to draw with, or Zayde would walk her to the drugstore, where he would buy cigars for himself and Life Savers for Bethie. Back at their apartment, Bethie would study the single framed photograph that hung on the wall. It had been taken shortly after Bubbe and Zayde had come to America. In the picture, Bubbe wore a white shirt with a high, frilly collar and a long black skirt pulled tight at the waist. Her dark hair was piled high on her head. Zayde wore a dark suit and had a beard that fell almost to the middle of his chest. They both were very young, and they both looked very serious. A little girl, who looked just as stern, stood between them. Each of them rested a hand on the girl’s shoulders.
“That was you?” Bethie would ask. She could hardly believe that her mommy had ever been a little girl, that she’d ever not been a grown-up.
“That was me,” Mommy would say, and she’d explain how Bubbe and Zayde had come from far away, over the seas, from a little village in Russia. The czar of Russia didn’t like the Jews. He made them live in ghettos and said that they couldn’t do certain jobs. Sometimes, soldiers would come with torches and break the windows of Jewish homes and businesses, or burn them right to
the ground, and so Bubbe and Zayde had come to America and sent Sarah to school to learn English and become an American girl. Mommy said the other kids would call her names—“greenie,” which was short for “greenhorn,” and other names that were probably the same ones Bethie had heard the older boys use on the playground:
. Once, she knew, some bad boys had chased her mother home, throwing mud at her dress. Mommy had told Jo the story when Jo had come home for lunch one day with her shirt torn and a note from her teacher. Jo had gotten in a fight because a boy had told her that the Jews killed Jesus. Bethie figured her mother would be mad at Jo for fighting, but instead her mouth had gotten tight, and she’d said, “The Romans killed Jesus, not the Jews. Tell your little friend that.” Then she’d told Bethie and Jo about how kids had teased her when she was little. Jo had pestered her for details, like did Sarah tell her parents, and did she tell the teacher and what were the names of the boys and did they ever get in trouble, but Sarah would only shake her head and say, “It was a long time ago.”