Miriam Levine trudged up to her parents’ third-floor tenement on Leverett Street, in the immigrant enclave of Boston’s West End. She was only twenty-one and her life was ruined.
She ascended the stairwell, exhausted, dried blood caked on her clothing and her coat buttons askew. Heavy with dread, fearing how Ma would welcome her announcement, she paused every few steps, each well-worn on the front edge. The stairwell walls bore years of scrapes from families heaving bulky furniture. She wondered if she was entering a safe haven.
She heard the well-known sounds of the neighbors—Mrs. Minelli yelling at her good-for-nothing husband, Sean O’Reilly singing a drunken melody. The distinctive odors changed as she climbed: from the heavy scent of garlic between the first and second floors, to Mrs. O’Reilly’s corned beef and cabbage between the second- and third-floor apartments, to the familiar smell of Ma’s freshly-baked kuchen.
Miriam already imagined Ma’s invective, blaming her for leaving a perfectly good man from an upstanding Jewish family, who lived in a prosperous suburb—for Miriam’s crazy notions, like the idea that she could have a better life without a husband.
She thought she had left the West End of Boston for good. She never imagined she’d come running back to her parents, her life in disarray. Fleeing her husband in terror. Why did I listen to Ma’s insistence that I marry Ethan? She clutched her whimpering son, Aaron, on her right hip; in her other arm she held a heavy satchel containing everything she’d grabbed as she raced out of the new house in Brookline.
She opened the door to her parents’ and nearly fell in under the weight of her burdens.
“What’re you doing out with the baby on a day like this?” Ma screamed. Miriam hadn’t heard her mother yell like that since Aaron was born. “It’s a lousy day. Rain’s coming down in torrents, wind’s blowing up a storm. Give him to me. You want he should get pneumonia?”
“I left Ethan, Ma. I told Pop about it—he’s not the same guy I met, the boy who adored me.” In Miriam’s frantic state, she lapsed into English. She re-phrased it in Yiddish, having trouble catching her breath.
“Oy gevalt, what’s this, I ask you?” Ma shrieked. “What news are you telling me? Why you take all my joy away?” She grabbed Aaron from Miriam’s arms and continued to howl at her, not letting her get a word in. “You meshugge? Ethan, he’s a good boy. He’ll inherit the family business. Look at that beautiful necklace he made for you. What could be so bad? Handsome boy, Ethan is. That head of hair he has. He could pass for a goy with that button nose. You crazy?
“You’re not going to stay here, I tell you, Miriam. I’ll take Aaron. You go off. You live with those flapper friends of yours. All you girls with short hair, knees sticking out of your skirts. No wonder Ethan, he don’t want you. I knew it. Your high fallutin’ pop never should take you to those shows when you were just a little girl. He never listens to me. And on top of that, all that talk you hear from his Arbeiter Ring meetings. Socialistic. Ladies’ rights. It’s poisoned you.
“I don’t know what’ll happen now,” Ma started to sniffle, her anger spent. “All we do for you—send you to that fancy girl’s school. Now look at you.”
Miriam’s eyes glazed over at Ma’s old diatribe—one she used to hear every week. She’d started to trust Ma; she’d calmed down since her beautiful grandson arrived. But Miriam knew, deep inside, that she was never the daughter Ma wanted—if she had ever wanted a daughter at all. She had wanted her son, that’s for sure. Izzy was everything to her until his terrible death.
But today, of all days, can’t Ma be a little bit kind to me? Can’t she see that I’m distraught and frantic? That what I need is sympathy for leaving my husband, who terrifies me?
“What’s goin’ on here?” Pop said, stomping water off his galoshes as he entered the kitchen door, red in the face and rubbing his cold hands. “There’s a big storm out there. Ah, Miriam, my bubbeleh, what’re you doin’ here? Why you cryin’? What’s the matter?”
Ma gave him her version of the debacle: “A nafka, she is. A floozy—”
“Mimi, what happened? Why?” Pop interrupted Ma, an unusual occurrence.
His worry melted her armor, prompting tears to stream down her cheeks, streaking the makeup she so carefully applied just hours before. Pop took her in his arms and rocked her like he did when she was a little girl. His warmth, his love, made her cry even more, cry for all the times she refused to cry when Ma berated her for everything that ever mattered to her. For her passion for theater. For working when she had a baby. For wanting more for herself than her Russian immigrant mother ever dreamed.
But things had been different between them lately. She thought she and Ma had turned a corner. Only last week, when she came to pick Aaron up, Ma asked her to stay and have coffee and cake with her. They’d sat in the kitchen and played with Aaron together, Ma so sweet and attentive to the baby. Miriam came to see Ma as being more like a friend.
Not today. She was her old self.
Between sobs, Miriam quietly told Pop what had happened. “Ethan, he beat me again, like I told you months ago. For no reason. Something’s wrong with him. He looks like a stranger—his eyes . . . I won’t let my baby grow up seeing Ethan hit me. You told me, Pop, if he does that again, come home. So, here I am. I don’t expect you to support me. I’ll ask Morris to give me more hours. Full-time hours. So I can pay Ma for room and board. Morris thinks the world of me. Ma wants Aaron anyway. She’ll be good to him. He’s her golden boy—now that poor Izzy’s gone.”
Miriam was still shaking, weak and exhausted, but Pop’s tenderness soothed her, as it always had.
“Shh, my darling,” Pop said, patting her wet, tangled blond hair. “It’ll be all right. We’re gonna take care of Aaron. Mebbe I go talk some sense into Ethan? You want me to do that? What’s a young girl gonna do? No husband, a baby—No? You don’t want that? Okay, okay, whatever you want. Let’s get these wet things off you. Get you somethin’ hot to drink. Rebecca, where’s some of your strong coffee, and your wonderful pastry I smell?”
Miriam’s body relaxed, the sobs fading away. She felt safe again. She could make it work. She made the right decision—to run away from her marital home, away from Ethan, away from the disapproving eye of her mother-in-law.
She fell into the bed in her old room, depleted from the turbulence of the day. Drowsily, she reflected on the bits and pieces of her childhood here. The walls, covered with teenage magazine photos curling at the edges: of Rudolph Valentino, one of Molly Picon, of other movie and stage stars whose names she’d forgotten. People who had fed her imagination since she was a girl.
The single bed, the dresser with the small, discolored mirror she had gazed into so often, dreaming of a different future.
The one window was still covered with soot from the street below, even though Ma scrubbed all the windows weekly, inside and out, standing up on a rickety chair and leaning precariously out while she talked with the neighbor. Miriam used to hate when Ma cleaned her room—afraid her secrets would be discovered. Her dreams. Her hopes.
The faded wallpaper with the teensy flowers that Miriam ignored as a child, which she noticed now that she’d been away for a couple of years. The only brightness was the yellow-and-blue bedcover that Pop lovingly made for her sixteenth birthday, in her favorite colors.
Aaron slept beneath it now, his blond curls covering his forehead, one arm flung over his face. She had a moment of doubt. Maybe she’d done a bad thing, wrenching him away from his father and grandparents. He had no idea what was happening. What will he do in the morning when he discovers that he’s not at home? Will he ask for his dadda, for Bubbe Bing? How can I explain to a two-year-old child that he won’t see his dadda again if I can help it?
Miriam couldn’t get comfortable in the tiny bed with her son. Her mind swirled with dark thoughts. Will Ethan come after us, demanding that we come home? Will the Bings lambast me for leaving and taking their beloved grandson away? Will Ma and I revert to our old ways?
She fell in and out of sleep. When she fully awakened, the room was cold, the howling wind outside making the old tenement building sound like the haunted houses she used to visit with Pop on Halloween. It took her a moment to remember where she was—she had left her spacious home on tree-lined Amory Street in Brookline. She was back at her parents’ tenement in the West End of Boston.
Aaron still fast asleep, she lay there for a while, trying to cover herself against the draft without disturbing him. Memories from the past flooded back, some warm and comforting, some bad—really bad. The images were vivid, as if she were that little girl again, trying as hard as she could to get Ma to love her, to figure out what Ma wanted, to keep Ma from being sad and angry.
Then there were the precious moments with Pop, who loved her without question. No matter what she did, or failed to do, she was his sweetheart. Always.
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