Welcome back to Weekend Writing Warriors, a weekly Sunday hop where writers share 8 sentences from a book or WIP. I’ve been sharing from the opening chapter of my recent release Little Ragdoll, a Bildungsroman (growing-up story) spanning 1959-74.
Five of the six Troy sisters (13-year-old Lucine, 11-year-old Emeline, 7-year-old Ernestine, 5-year-old Adicia, and 6-month-old Justine) are uptown at Woolworth’s with their surrogate mother Sarah Katz, a barely-paid live-in servant who performs the housekeeping and childcare duties Mrs. Troy is too lazy and disinterested to do herself. At Woolworth’s, they’ve run into some nasty girls from the nice part of the neighborhood who also wanted to go uptown.
Now one of the mothers has something to say to Sarah, who defends herself as boldly as Lucine has been doing. Then one of the girls turns on little Adicia.
“How can you go out in public without long sleeves or a bandage covering that thing?” Mrs. Jones asks Sarah. “That’s not decent, particularly not for little children. There’s no decent way to explain that to them.”
“Your attitude says more about you than me,” Sarah responds. “My girls know what my tattoo means, and they don’t think it’s shameful or dirty. Are you uncomfortable to see evidence that not everyone has a life as perfect as yours?”
“Is this one starting kindergarten?” Barbara Stevens asks. “She looks like a dirty, ugly, torn-apart Raggedy Ann.”
In 1959, this really was a common attitude. Very, very few Holocaust survivors had written or spoken publicly about their experience, it wasn’t really taught in schools, people were not getting degrees in Holocaust Studies, and it made many born Americans uncomfortable to see evidence like Sarah’s tattoo. In the era of “what’s not nice we don’t show,” many survivors were told to cover their tattoos, or did so themselves, to avoid awkward questions or looks.
There’s a chapter in Livia Bitton-Jackson’s memoir Hello, America, where the rabbi/principal at her religious school tells her the parents are very upset she told their children the truth about her tattoo. He seriously thought she should’ve told them it was her phone number, even though that would’ve made her seem a madwoman.