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The Boston Girl

Anita Diamant

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  For Robert B. Wyatt and S.J.P.

  | 1985 |

  Nobody told you?

  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 you’ll understand.

  And why not? Look at the five of you: a doctor, a social worker, two teachers, and now you.

  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 1900. I’ve lived in Boston my whole life, which anyone can tell the minute I open my mouth.

  | 1915–16 |

  That’s where I started to be my own person.

  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 a smack.

  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 the house; she said it was because her English was 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.”

  “The other one is almost fifteen 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 them 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 schoolwork 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.

  Three cheers for Addie Baum.

  The settlement house was a four-story building that stood out from everything else in the neighborhood. It was new with yellow bricks instead of red. It had electricity in all the rooms so at night it lit up the street like a lantern.

  It was busy all day. There was a baby nursery for mothers who worked, a woodshop to teach boys a trade, and English classes for immigrants. After dark, women would come to ask for food and coal so their children wouldn’t starve or freeze. The neighborhood was that poor.

  Miss Edith Chevalier was in charge of all that and a lot more. She’s the one who started the library groups for girls: one for the Irish, one for Italians, and one for Jews. Sometimes she would look in and ask what we were reading—not to test us but just because she wanted to know.

  That’s what happened on the day my club was reading “The Midnight Ride of Paul Revere” out loud. I guess I was better than the others because after the meeting, Miss Chevalier asked if I would recite the whole poem to the Saturday Club. She said a famous professor was going to give a lecture about Henry Wadsworth Longfellow, and she thought a presentation of his most famous poem would be a nice way to start the evening.

  She said that I would have to memorize it, “But that shouldn’t be a problem for a girl of your ability.” I’m telling you, my feet didn’t touch the ground all the way home. It was the biggest thing that ever happened to me and I learned the whole poem by heart in two days so I’d be ready for our first “rehearsal.”

  Miss Chevalier was a small woman, a few inches shorter than me, which meant less than five feet. She had a moon face and chubby fingers and coppery hair that sprang straight up from her head, which is why some of the girls called her The Poodle. But she had one of those smiles that makes you feel like you just did something right, which was a good thing since I was a nervous wreck when I went to her office to practice.

  I only got halfway through the poem when Miss Chevalier stopped me and asked if I knew what impetuous meant. She was nice about it, but I wanted to sink through the floor because not only did I not know what the word meant, I had mispronounced it.

  I’m sure I turned bright red, but Miss Chevalier pretended not to notice and handed me the dictionary and said to read the definition out loud.

  I will never forget; impetuous means two things. “Rushing with great force or violence,” and “acting suddenly, with little thought.”

  She asked me which one I thought Mr. Longfellow meant. I reread those definitions over and over, trying to figure out the right answer, but Miss Chevalier must have read my mind. “There is no wrong answer,” she said. “I want to know your opinion, Addie. What do you think?”

  I had never been asked for my opinion, but I knew I couldn’t keep her waiting so I said the first thing that came into my head, which was, “Maybe he meant both.”

  She liked that. “The patriots had to be impetuous both ways or they wouldn’t have dared challenge the British.” Then she asked, “Would you call yourself impetuous, Addie?”

  That time, I knew she was asking for an opinion. “My mother thinks I am.”

  She said mothers were right to be concerned for their daughters’ welfare. “But I believe that girls need gumption, too, especially in this day and age. I believe you are a girl with gumption.”

  After I looked up gumption, I never let anyone call Miss Chevalier The Poodle again.


  I told Celia and my parents about the big honor of reciting for the Saturday Club, but when the day came and I put on my coat, Mameh said, “You’re not going anywhere.”

  I told her they were waiting for me and that I had practiced and they couldn’t start without me but she shrugged like it was nothing. “It’s too cold. Let someone else get pneumonia.”

  I couldn’t believe what she was saying. I argued and I begged and finally I was yelling. “No one else can do it. They’re counting on me. If I don’t go, I won’t be able to show my face there again.”

  Mameh said, “When I was your age I didn’t step a foot outside without my mother, so close your mouth before I get mad.”

  Celia said, “Let her go, Mameh. It’s not far. She can wear my scarf.”

  My mother almost never snapped at Celia, but she said, “Stay out of this. That one sits in that school while you’re killing yourself at work. She’s already ruining her eyes from reading. No man wants to marry a girl with a squint.”

  “Maybe I don’t want to get married.” The moment I said that, I ran behind where Celia was sitting so Mameh couldn’t slap me. But she just laughed. “Are you so stupid? Marriage and children are a woman’s crown.”

  I said, “Like for Mrs. Freistadt?”

  Mameh didn’t have an answer for Mrs. Freistadt. She lived across the street. One day her husband came home from work and said he couldn’t live with a woman he didn’t love, so after twenty years and four little girls, he walked out. Just like that.

  The wife didn’t speak English and she didn’t know how to do anything but clean and cook. They got so poor—she and the ­daughters—everyone in the neighborhood was ashamed for them.

  Talking about Mrs. Freistadt was the last straw for Mameh and she came at me with both hands, slapping and cursing and saying things like “Ungrateful worm. Monster. A plague you are.”

  I was jumping around to keep away from her, which made her even madder. “My father would have taken a strap to you,” she yelled, and finally got me on my cheek with a loud slap that made Celia wail as if Mameh had hit her instead of me.

  My mother had me against the wall, holding my wrists, and I was hollering, “Leave me alone,” when Papa walked in and told her to let me go.

  Mameh screamed, “You don’t do anything and I’m not having another whore in this family.”

  “Don’t use that word,” he yelled. “Betty is a good girl.”

  Someone started pounding on the door. “Shut up in there.”

  Celia had been crying the whole time, but no
w she started banging her forehead on the table. She was saying, “Stop, stop, stop,” and hitting her head hard enough that we could hear the sound of her face on the wood.

  Papa grabbed her by the shoulders. “Lena, she’s hurting herself.”

  Mameh let go of me to look and I ran.


  The cold wind on my face felt like it was washing away everything that happened upstairs. I walked fast and whispered the poem to myself in time with my feet.

  Listen my children and you shall hear

  Of the midnight ride of Paul Revere,

  On the eighteenth of April, in Seventy-five;

  Hardly a man is now alive

  Who remembers that famous day and year.

  I was almost calm when I got to the settlement house, but it was a big shock to see all the chairs and benches in the big meeting room full of girls, talking and laughing with each other.

  The Saturday Club was different from all the other clubs. It was bigger—fifty girls instead of ten or twelve—and all the religions were together. They were older, too; some were in high school but a lot of them had jobs. They also held elections and ran their own meetings. I was only three or four years younger than most of them, but to me, they were practically grown-ups.

  Miss Chevalier was at the door and sent me to sit in the front row while she waited for the professor. She said he should be there any moment, but five minutes passed and another five and another and I was getting more and more nervous. My hands were shaking when he finally got there. He looked so much like the pictures of Longfellow—with the white beard and long hair—it was as if he’d come back from the dead.

  Rose Reardon, the club president, banged a gavel and made some announcements. I didn’t hear a word and Miss Chevalier had to tap me on the shoulder when it was time for me to go up to the platform. My knees were like rubber.