This week for Sweet Saturday Samples, since the Western Easter is tomorrow, I’m jumping back quite a bit in Adicia’s story for an excerpt from Chapter 9, “Easter 1960.” Adicia is 5, Justine is 13 months, Ernestine is 8, Emeline is 11, and Lucine is 14. As always, the only holiday cheer Adicia and her sisters get comes from the festive meal at the Bowery Mission, where they also go for Thanksgiving and Christmas. I remembered in my original unfinished first draft, the girls went to some kind of big soup kitchen for Christmas and Thanksgiving, and I was very pleased to discover there really is a large soup kitchen and mission in their area, the wonderful Bowery Mission.
Ziessen Pesach and Happy Easter!
Adicia skips into the mission ahead of her sisters and Sarah and runs over to the nearest table with five empty place settings. She can’t wait to be served the Easter dinner, since she knows it’ll probably be the last decent meal they’ll have a chance to eat until Thanksgiving. The sight of the other Bowery guests makes her happy, knowing at least here they won’t be judged for not having pretty new Easter bonnets and dresses, or asked to compare Easter baskets.
Ernestine goes over to one of the mission workers, carrying the stroller and the wheel. “Excuse me, is there anyone here who can fix my baby sister’s stroller? One of the wheels came off when we were walking to church this morning, and she’s not yet able to walk, so we’ve had to carry her around today.”
Justine smiles and coos at the mission worker from her snug place in Sarah’s arms.
“Of course we can find someone who can fix it. We never turn away anyone who comes to us in need, particularly not on the holiest day of the year. I’ll go get one of the handymen who works here, and we’ll come find you when it’s fixed.” The woman takes the wheel and stroller. “How old’s your sister?”
“Thirteen months,” Ernestine says proudly.
“You sure know how to make attractive girls,” the woman tells Sarah, smiling. “Are there any more besides these four?”
“Our other sister is sitting over there,” Emeline points. “We’ve also got some brothers and an older sister, who didn’t want to eat here.”
“Our oldest sister is celebrating Easter with friends, and our brothers are too proud to accept charity,” Lucine says.
“Our little brother made a big scene in church this morning,” Ernestine says. “When we were walking in, he asked loudly, ‘Who’s that on the cross?’ We went to an Episcopal church, and we usually go to Protestant churches, so he’d never seen a crucifix before. I still don’t know how he could not know that was Jesus, even if we only go to church a few times a year. That’s supposed to be one of the first things you learn at church!”
“I’d like to go to church more, but the other people are always judging our family when we go,” Lucine says. “On Christmas Eve the other kids were laughing about how we smelled bad. I’m sorry, but if they’d taken a bath in cold bathwater a bunch of other people had already used without draining it, they’d smell bad too. And they always look at us funny because our clothes aren’t as nice as theirs.”
“I’m very sorry to hear that. I hope you know no one at this mission judges other people for not looking a certain way.”
“We love your mission!” Ernestine says.
Emeline leads the others over to Adicia. Soon they’re being served delicious candied yams, cornbread rolls, lamb, hot cross buns, some kind of dish made with eggs, roasted vegetables, chicken, mashed potatoes, and candied orange slices, with milk, fruit juice, and sparkling water to drink. Adicia always finds it hard to believe how so much delicious food can exist in such a dismal part of the city.
At the end of the meal, someone comes over to them to deliver the stroller, whose wheels are now all firmly attached. The mission worker also gives Justine a stuffed white rabbit. Justine doesn’t know what to do with it at first, since she’s never had any toys before. Then she figures out it’s meant for hugging and cuddling, and falls asleep holding it as Sarah wheels her back home.
Mr. and Mrs. Troy are out drinking when they come back, and Carlos is hanging over the fire escape in his usual drug-induced state. Sarah puts Justine down on a blanket on the floor to see if she needs her diaper changed.
Justine wakes up and smiles up at her sisters and Sarah. “Mama.”
“Did our baby just talk?” Emeline asks excitedly.
“Our baby just said her first words!” Ernestine echoes.
Adicia looks at her sadly. “No, not Ma-ma. Sa-rah. Our real mother is that other woman who lives here, the mean one who looks like she rolled out of a garbage dumpster.”
“Mama,” Justine repeats.
“She’ll learn soon enough, the way the rest of us did,” Lucine sighs.
“Maybe you can adopt us and take us away from this nasty place,” Ernestine suggests. “Then Justine can grow up seeing you as her real mother and not even knowing about the horrible woman who really gave birth to us.”
“I don’t tink any of us vill be leaving here anytime soon, unless a miracle happens,” Sarah says.
Emeline jumps up and runs into the bathroom. “Can anybody help me?” she calls. “I think I need a sanitary napkin, and I don’t have a belt yet!”
“Are you sure?” Lucine asks. “You’re only eleven! Gemma and I were both twelve and a half, and some of the girls in my eighth grade classes still haven’t gotten theirs yet!”
“I’ll be twelve next month. And those goofy booklets and filmstrips did say some girls are younger than others. You know I’ve been developing a bustline since I was even younger than this.”
Sarah gets two extra safety pins out of Justine’s diaper bag and goes in to help Emeline. Lucine ducks into her bedroom to get a Modess pad from the big box Mrs. Troy buys every few months and embarrassedly dumps on her oldest daughters’ bed.
“Can’t you borrow Lucine’s belt?” Adicia asks.
“That’s not really sanitary,” Lucine says. “It’s like letting someone borrow underwear or a bathing suit.”
“Our mother does make us use hand-me-down swimsuits!”
“Will Emeline still be able to go swimming with us in the summer if she’s bleeding from that part of her body?” Ernestine asks.
“Not unless she’s using an applicator,” Lucine says. “According to the booklets and filmstrips, we’re not supposed to be in cold water or get chills, but I refuse to believe that’s true. Not too long ago, people used to think we’d die if we bathed or exercised then, and now we know that’s a bunch of malarkey.”
Adicia doesn’t understand much of what her older sisters are talking about. She hopes with everything in her that their happy little quartet will continue as it always has, even though Lucine is soon to go to high school and Emeline has undergone the strange and secretive process that turns a girl into a young woman. The one constant in her life, the friendship she shares with her sisters, means everything to her. Without it, she would have to figure out a whole new way to navigate the rough hand she was dealt when she was born into a family plagued by poverty for generations.