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The Boston Girl_A Novel, Page 2

Anita Diamant

  I had a lot to remember—and not just the words. Miss Chevalier had given me a lot of directions to “add to the drama.” This was the North End of Boston, where every schoolchild knew “The Midnight Ride” and we were all pretty sick of it.

  Miss Chevalier gave me a big smile and a nod to start me off.

  I remembered to begin as if I were a little out of breath, like I had a surprise to tell. Then I tried to make Paul Revere seem like a real person, tapping my foot to make it look like he was impatient to get going. I whispered about the graves being lonely and spectral and sombre and still, making it sound spooky. At the end, I went very, very slow.

  In the hour of darkness and peril and need,

  The people will waken and listen to hear

  The hurrying hoof-beats of that steed,

  And the midnight message of Paul Revere.

  I counted to three and bowed my head like Miss Chevalier showed me. There was a big round of applause and even a “Three cheers for Addie Baum.” Miss Chevalier put her arm around me and introduced me to the professor, who said I’d done the Great Man proud.

  Then he gave his talk. And, boy, did he talk. It was not only long but also so boring it was like listening to a clock tick. Girls started yawning and looking at their fingernails and even Miss Chevalier had to pretend she was paying attention. When he stopped to blow his nose, she stood up and clapped as if he were finished. Everyone else clapped, too, but I think it was to thank Miss Chevalier for rescuing us.

  After the lecture, I was the belle of the ball. Girls I didn’t know came over to say what a good job I’d done and ask where I worked and did I want another cup of punch or a cookie.

  Miss Chevalier introduced me to Miss Green, the artist who ran a pottery studio in the settlement house. The two of them lived in an apartment on the top floor. They had the same first name so everyone called them the Ediths.

  They were about the same height, but Miss Green looked like a sparrow compared to Miss Chevalier, who was more of a pigeon. Miss Green tilted her head the way a bird would, and looked me over with round, bright bird eyes.

  “Miss Chevalier has told me so much about you,” she said. “I hope she’s talked to you about going to Rockport Lodge this summer. It’s just the thing for a girl like you.”

  Miss Chevalier explained that Rockport Lodge was an inn for young ladies in a seaside town north of Boston. She said it wasn’t expensive and some members of the Saturday Club went regularly.

  Miss Green said, “You must know that the Frommer girls have been there a few times.”

  I guess she thought that all the Jewish girls knew each other, but I only met Helen and Gussie Frommer that night. Helen was the older one, a real peaches-and-cream beauty. That could have been hard for Gussie, who had a big nose and a mousy complexion, but you never saw two sisters who looked out for each other like those two.

  Helen was sweet, but Gussie had the big personality; she walked me around the room and introduced me to just about everyone. When we got to Rose Reardon, she said, “Madame President, don’t you think Addie should join the Saturday Club? Miss Chevalier brought her, so you know she’ll be all for it.”

  Rose said, “Of course you should join!” She was a healthy girl with auburn hair and pretty green eyes and a gap between her two front teeth. People used to call her kind of a face “a map of Ireland.”

  “You should come to Rockport Lodge, too,” she said. “In the evenings we do skits and sing songs and some of the girls read poems—right up your alley. And we don’t go hungry.” She patted her stomach. “Three meals a day and cake at supper.”

  I was having such a good time, it was hard to think about going home, and I was one of the last ones to leave. I walked outside with Filomena Gallinelli, who said that she couldn’t imagine standing in front of so many people the way I did. “You looked like you were enjoying it.”

  “I was terrified,” I said.

  “Then you must be a great actress.”

  I had seen Filomena around the settlement house and thought she was gorgeous; dark eyes, dark hair, olive skin—a real Italian. She wore her hair in a long braid over her shoulder, which was completely out of fashion, but she could get away with it, not only because it looked good on her but also because she was an artist. Filomena was one of a few girls who had full-time jobs in the Salem Street pottery studio. She was Miss Green’s favorite and nobody minded because she was so talented.

  She asked if my name was really Adeline because of “Sweet Adeline,” the song.

  I told her no. “Just Addie. It was my sister Betty’s idea and my father liked it because it sounded like his grandmother Altie.”

  She said she envied me for having an American name. “Filomena is too long and no one can pronounce it.”

  I said, “But your name fits you; it’s beautiful and unusual. Addie is just plain and ordinary.”

  “What are you talking about?” she said. “You’ve got a nice shape and beautiful eyes. No one who’s ordinary can recite like you did tonight.”

  After we said good night, I was too keyed up to go home, so I kept walking and walking—up and down Hanover Street, looping around the high school, making a big circle around my block. The cold didn’t bother me because my mind was going a million miles an hour. I wondered what Miss Green meant when she said “a girl like you,” and if I could be friends with Gussie, Helen, and Rose. I remembered the applause and every compliment and how friendly Filomena had been. “See you next week,” she said.

  It had been the best night of my life, and if I hadn’t walked into a puddle and soaked my shoes, I would have walked all the way to Rockport Lodge—wherever that was.

  What are friends for?

  I’ll never forget when I took your mother to see The Wizard of Oz. You know the scene when everything changes from black-and-white to color? That’s what it felt like the first time I went to Rockport. Everything was in color, everything was new, even things I’d seen my whole life.

  The ocean, for example. Boston Harbor was a few blocks from where I grew up, and sure, the water there was filthy and the docks were smelly and dangerous, but how could I not know about low tide and high tide? I had never seen a cloud change the color of the sea in a second, or heard water crashing so loud you couldn’t hear the person standing right next to you.

  That first week I was at Rockport Lodge, I saw corn growing out of the ground, and goats, and lighthouses. When I closed my eyes at night, I could still see fireflies blinking. I couldn’t get over those fireflies.

  It was the first time I ever slept in a bed by myself. And the sheets? Ironed! It felt like sleeping on silk. I got my own towel and a pillow that smelled like flowers. So many new smells: beach roses, seaweed, smoke from a bonfire. I ate hot dogs and cherry pie and saltwater taffy that got stuck in my teeth.

  It didn’t cost a lot to go to Rockport Lodge in 1916. I think it was seven dollars for a week, which was seven dollars more than I ever had. When Miss Chevalier found out that I couldn’t afford to go, she gave me a job as her assistant. Actually, she made a job out of thin air.

  I took her letters to the mailbox, I helped in the baby nursery when one of the regular attendants was sick, and I put away books in the library. I swept up in the pottery studio, too, where I got to watch Filomena and the other girls paint Miss Green’s designs on the plates and vases they sold in a little gift shop they ran on the ground floor.

  When Miss Chevalier ran out of things for me to do, she had me sit in her office and read books by Charles Dickens for us to talk about. I got very friendly with her dictionary.

  She paid me fifty cents a week, but I was getting so much more than that. I had a private class in literature, the chance to watch artists work, and time to read. I didn’t appreciate it at the time, but what did I know? I was fifteen years old.

  I didn’t say a word to anyone at hom
e about what I was doing. I would have told Celia, but my sister could never keep a secret or tell a lie. My parents didn’t know what a vacation was. And what was I going to say? That I was earning money so I could go away and do nothing? That I had money but wasn’t helping to pay the bills, when Celia handed over every penny? I did feel guilty about that. I tried to make up for it by eating less. I’m sure nobody noticed.


  The day I went to Rockport was my sixteenth birthday, July 10.

  I didn’t have to do a lot to get ready. I could wear just about all the clothes I owned and the rest I stuffed into an old pillowcase I bought from a ragman’s cart for a few pennies. I left a note in Celia’s shoe to say I was going on a vacation with some nice girls I knew. I also left two dollars—all of my spending money—even though I knew it wouldn’t make any difference to my mother. I put chicken fat on the door hinges so they wouldn’t squeak in the morning; I was very proud of myself for thinking of that.

  I didn’t close my eyes at all the night before I left. I was out of bed the second it started to get light and I held my breath until I got to the stoop and stopped to put on my shoes.

  It was strange to be outside so early. The streets were completely empty and quiet. Not even the milkman was there. No one. It was spooky.

  Without the people, I could see how dirty it was. There was garbage piled all over the place and I saw rats running in and out. In the gutters there was all kinds of filth, the worst you can imagine. I ran as fast as I could to get out of there and down to the harbor where Gussie and Helen and Rose were waiting.

  Most of the girls were taking the train to Rockport but Miss Chevalier had gotten boat tickets for us. It was a gorgeous day—the sea was calm and the sun was warm—and I stayed at the front railing for the whole trip. I didn’t want to miss anything. I wish I’d been keeping a diary, but I still remember how the water was slapping against the hull of the ship and that to me it sounded like clapping. A seagull flew down and hung in the air maybe ten feet from my shoulder and I could see all the little markings on his wings and how his eye looked like a gray marble rolling around in his head. By the time we got to Gloucester, my face hurt from smiling.

  When we got close to the dock, Rose started jumping up and down and waving at a heavyset woman in a big hat.

  “I can’t believe they sent Mrs. Morse to get us,” she said. “She is the best cook in the world.”

  Mrs. Morse didn’t seem so excited to see us. She hurried us into a real old-fashioned horse-drawn cart, and we had to sit on the floor between sacks of flour, with our feet hanging off the back.

  It’s good that we were wedged in so tight because whenever we hit a bump in the road everyone flew up in the air—like in a roller coaster. It was kind of fun but my behind was plenty sore by the time we stopped.

  Rockport Lodge was more beautiful than I had imagined; a big white-painted farmhouse with black shutters, two stories, and porches on each side of the front door. Vines with button-size red roses climbed through the railings, almost up to the upstairs windows, where white curtains puffed in and out. Next to the house, there was an orchard with benches in the shade.

  Filomena met us at the door and said that she had asked to have me as her roommate. “I hope that’s okay with you.”

  I couldn’t believe it. Since we met at Saturday Club, we had only said a few words to each other in the pottery studio. I was a little bit in awe of her, not just for her looks and her talent, but also for her self-confidence.

  Filomena was the only girl in the studio that Miss Green trusted to decorate the really big vases—the ones that went to art shows and sold for a lot of money. I know some of the other girls would have liked the chance to do that, but she didn’t apologize for being chosen. I don’t mean that she bragged. Filomena just knew who she was, which wasn’t so easy back then. I guess it’s still not easy, is it? It took me until I was almost forty before I knew what I wanted to be when I grew up.

  I followed her up the front stairs to a long hallway where all the doors were open and I could see girls unpacking and changing clothes, talking and laughing like it was a party. Our room was at the very end.

  “It’s small but there’s only the two of us; some of the others have four girls crammed in.”

  The room was just big enough for two narrow beds, a bureau, and one wooden chair. It was all very plain: white walls and a worn wooden floor, but the light from the window bounced off the walls and made the white bedspreads seem to glow.

  Filomena stretched out on one of the cots, but I didn’t want to wrinkle anything so I stayed by the door.

  “When you bring up your valise, you can put your things in the bottom drawers.” When Filomena said “valise,” I dropped my lumpy pillowcase and thought, Oh, no. What am I doing here?

  But she caught on right away. “Aren’t you smart to pack light. I always bring too many clothes and part of the fun is sharing.”

  That was so nice of her I could have cried with relief, but thankfully, someone rang a bell downstairs.

  “That’s lunch,” Filomena said. “They’re always telling you how fresh air works up an appetite, and they must be right because I’m always starving when I’m here.”

  In the dining room, there were six big oak tables all set with plates, glasses, silverware, and white cloth napkins—which I’d only ever seen in movies. Filomena pointed me to where Rose was sitting with Helen and Gussie Frommer. “See you later,” she said, and went to a table full of dark-haired girls who could have been her cousins.

  Rose was sitting next to a pale, skinny girl with green eyes, carrot-colored hair, and a million freckles. Rose said, “This is my roommate, Irene Conley. She’s from Boston, too.” I said hello but Irene shrugged and looked right past me. Rose, who always had a smile on her face, glared at her. “Do you have a toothache or something?”

  Irene shrugged again and crossed her arms.

  Helen asked if I was settled in my room and did I need anything. She was like a mother hen, as nice as she was pretty, and that day she was wearing a pink shirtwaist that made her look like a flower. But when I started to say how good she looked, she stopped me. “Has my sister introduced you to everybody? Gussie is the mayor of Rockport Lodge.”

  Gussie was plain as a brick but people liked her because she made them feel important. Whenever she met someone new, she wanted to know everything about them. Helen teased Gussie about her “cross-examinations” but it was flattering to be asked to talk about yourself. At my second Saturday Club meeting, Gussie got me in a corner and asked about school, my favorite movie stars, my family, and what I thought about the temperance movement. When I said I didn’t understand it very well, she explained how it was a good idea that couldn’t work.

  Gussie never forgot a name or anything you told her. She would have made a great politician.

  When she noticed me looking over at Filomena’s table, she said, “They’ve been friends forever. The Italians stick together, like everyone. The girls behind us all come from one club in Arlington. The table next to them is one hundred percent Irish. Sometimes there’s a Jewish bunch, but our table is like the Saturday Club, all mixed together.”

  I said, “Like mixed nuts.”

  Rose laughed. “I love that. We should call ourselves the Mixed Nuts—crazy enough to talk to anyone who talks to us.”

  Gussie made a toast with her water glass. “To the Mixed Nuts.”


  Before lunch, we met the women who were in charge of Rockport Lodge that year. Miss Holbrooke and Miss Case reminded me a little of Miss Chevalier and Miss Green. They were much younger and didn’t look anything like the Ediths, but they were smart and wore sensible shoes. And no lipstick.

  Miss Holbrooke had on a pair of navy-blue bloomers that were so out of date it looked like she was wearing a costume. She had big, gray teeth and a long mane of coarse san
dy-colored hair that made her look like a horse, and she wore a whistle around her neck on a string that hung straight down her chest. She was in charge of all the outside activities: lawn tennis, archery, croquet, visits to town and other “attractions” as she called it, and bicycling.

  Miss Case was so blond that her eyebrows and eyelashes were practically invisible. She was smaller and quieter than Miss Holbrooke, but she was the boss. I remember she carried around a ledger book and held it out flat in front of her, like it was a desk.

  Miss Case said that we would say grace before eating. Rose and Irene bowed their heads and folded their hands, but Gussie, Helen, and I sort of froze. Miss Case closed her eyes and thanked God for the food, for the people who gave money so we could enjoy the blessings of God’s green earth, for good health, and the United States, and that we owed it all to Jesus Christ.

  I asked Gussie if they always did that.

  “They always pray,” she said, “But I never heard anyone say that last part.” Jews never said “Jesus” or “Christ” out loud. We weren’t supposed to go inside a church, either. Like it was a contagious disease.

  I actually didn’t think much about being Jewish as a kid. In my neighborhood, there were Jews and Italians and Irish and everyone got along pretty well. Sometimes the boys got into fights and some of it had to do with religion. But it was pretty much live and let live, as I remember it.

  I got a little self-conscious when I saw Helen and Gussie take the ham out of their sandwiches and eat just bread with mustard.

  But I was hungry and I ate the meat, and it wasn’t the first time. I was hungry a lot when I was young and I never turned down food—including things I knew were not kosher. Nothing bad ever happened to me and a lot of it was delicious. So I ate everything they put in front of me at Rockport Lodge. Except for the pickles. Who ever heard of a pickle that was sweet and soft? Feh.


  After lunch, they sent everyone upstairs to put on shoes and hats to get ready for a hike. I didn’t have a dictionary so I asked Rose what a hike was.