WeWriWa—Served a proper feast

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Welcome back to Weekend Writing Warriors and Snippet Sunday, weekly Sunday hops where writers share 8–10 sentences from a book or WIP. The rules have now been relaxed to allow a few more sentences if merited, so long as they’re clearly indicated, to avoid the creative punctuation many of us have used to stay within the limit.

This year’s Thanksgiving excerpts come from Chapter 4, “Thanksgiving 1959,” of Little Ragdoll. Set from 1959–74, it takes protagonist Adicia Troy from age five to twenty. Here, Adicia and her four closest sisters have gone to dinner at the Bowery Mission with their surrogate mother Sarah, a live-in nanny and maid whom their black-hearted blood mother barely pays.

                       

The scents of delicious food are overwhelming when they enter the dining hall. Adicia eagerly rushes over to a table with five available chairs and place settings, making sure it’s near the end of the table so they have space for Justine’s stroller.

“Do you mind that you never eat kosher meat, Sarah?” Emeline asks as they’re being served.

“You eat what you can when you don’t have money. Besides, I wasn’t from a religious family. Most German Jews weren’t religious. My family wasn’t anti-religious, but we weren’t Orthodox either.”

“Judaism has different denominations like Christianity? I haven’t read many books on world religions. I don’t even know what denomination my family’s supposed to be, just that we were baptized some type of Protestant.”

The ten lines end here. A few more follow.

“I don’t know either,” Lucine says. “Why did our parents bother having us baptized if we only go to church on major holidays?”

“There are four major branches of Judaism,” Sarah says. “Then there are many different communities in the Orthodox world, and small branches like Karaites. We can look for a good book about it next time we go to the library.”

Adicia practically inhales the feast set before her. Roast turkey, mashed potatoes, cranberry sauce, stuffing, yams, vegetables, pumpkin, pecan, and apple pie, applesauce, and piping-hot rolls. The volunteers and mission workers are very special for buying, preparing, and serving all this food to so many people, and then cleaning up it all up.

The Bowery Mission, Copyright Beyond My Ken

WeWriWa—Mean Girls at Woolworth’s

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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.

WeWriWa—What Makes a Mother

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Welcome back to Weekend Writing Warriors, a weekly Sunday hop where writers share 8 sentences from a book or WIP. This week, in honor of Mother’s Day, I’m sharing a snippet from Little Ragdoll, the contemporary historical I’m releasing on 20 June. (I chose that release date because it’s the 50th anniversary of the release of The Four Seasons’ song “Rag Doll,” the inspiration for my story.)

It’s May 1973, in Hudson Falls, NY, and 18-year-old Adicia is in labor with the child who was created the night before her newlywed husband Ricky was inducted into the Air Force for Vietnam. Ricky’s number was 88, one of the final numbers to be called in the last active year of the draft lottery. I’m not going to give anything away, but suffice it to say, Ricky can’t be at the birth.

The midwife hasn’t come to the house yet, but she’s got the support of family and friends. Most meaningful to Adicia is the presence of her old nanny Sarah (with a long A), who was fired by her mother shortly before her eighth birthday and finally reunited with Adicia’s family about eight months ago. No matter that they have different family names, religions, and ethnicities, Adicia is her baby.

***

She sobs in relief when she feels her old nanny’s arms around her and her hands stroking her hair.

“Please don’t leave me, Sarah,” she begs. “I think God, if he exists, made a mistake when he was assigning mothers and gave me my birth mother and you only as my nanny.”

“Du und deine Schwestern waren meine Kinder bevor ich hatte Kinder biologischen,” she whispers to Adicia. “I love Fritz and Nessa as a mutter loves her biological kinder, but I love you and your sisters as a mutter loves kinder who are hers through love.  You, Emeline, Ernestine, and Justine all said ‘Mama’ as your first word, and to me, not your blood mutter.  You, Lucine, Emeline, Ernestine, and Justine are my babies just as much as Fritz and Nessa.  I have seven kinder, not just two.”

***

In case you couldn’t guess, the German means “You and your sisters were my children before I had biological children.” Sarah’s speech was originally written with a German accent, but I finally took it all out and just introduced her by saying she still retains her strong accent after so many years in America. Now she only has a few German words she says in place of hard to pronounce English words, like bruder (brother), mutter (mother), vater (father), and mit (with).

For those who are interested, Jakob’s story is now available for purchase by Kindle and will have a print edition coming presently. You can click on the image for more information.

Jakob Cover

Sweet Saturday Samples

This week’s excerpt for Sweet Saturday Samples comes from Chapter 35 of Little Ragdoll, “Welcoming a New Troy.” While Allen and Lenore are having their first meeting with their prospective midwife in March of 1967, Adicia and her sisters make a joyful discovery in the midwife’s photo album.

***

“Pleased to meet you, Mr. and Mrs. Troy,” she says, shaking their hands. “I’m Veronica Zoravkov and I hope I can be your midwife when the time comes.  I’ll give you a chance to talk with me about what you’d like out of your birth experience, what your expectations are, and what your plans are if you need to be transferred to the hospital, but first introduce me to everybody.  Are all these girls going to be present at the birth?”

“I ain’t no girl!” Boy protests. “Just ‘cause I’m the only guy in a group of girls don’t mean my maleness don’t count!”

“These are my younger sisters, Ernestine, Adicia, and Justine,” Allen indicates. “Those are my sisters’ friends, Julie and the Ryans.  Their parents called them Girl, Boy, Baby, and Infant, though they decided on some real names, I think, for when they go into wider society when they’re older.”

“Deirdre,” Girl reminds him. “My brother is David, Baby is Fiona, and Infant is Aoife, or Eva.”

“Are you a Miss or a Mrs.?” Adicia asks.

“Just call me Veronica.  We’re all friends here.  I probably won’t answer if you call me Mrs. Zoravkov anyway, since only people who don’t personally know me address me by my title instead of my first name.”

“Is that a Russian name?” Julie asks.

“Bulgarian.  My maiden name was Bulgarian too.  I wanted to marry another Bulgarian-American to keep my heritage alive instead of diluting it, since I’m so proud of where I come from.”

“Where’s Bulgaria?” Infant asks. “Is it very far away?”

“It’s on the Black Sea,” Ernestine says. “It’s in Southeastern Europe, in an area called the Balkans.  It borders Romania, Greece, and Yugoslavia.”

“What’s in your picture book?” Justine asks. “Can we look at it?”

“They’re pictures of past clients and their babies. If your brother and sister-in-law choose me and everything goes well, their pictures will be in here too come June.  It’s meant to reassure my prospective clients that normal people just like them have had their babies with a midwife, and that everything turns out alright in the majority of cases.  Of course, if the baby’s breech, we’ll have to take you to the hospital.”

“What’s a breech?” Baby asks.

“It’s when the baby is facing the wrong way,” Girl explains. “Babies are supposed to be born head-first, but sometimes they come out with their feet or rear end facing first.”

While Allen and Lenore are chatting with Veronica, the girls look at the pictures in the album.  A number of times they express surprise that the newly-born babies look rather unattractive instead of all cute, cuddly, and cleaned-up.  The people in the pictures look like normal people, just as Veronica said.  They don’t look like oddballs, but rather people they might pass in the street and not assume any anti-establishment thoughts about.

Allen looks over at them questioningly when there hasn’t been a peep out of them for more than several minutes.  Adicia, Ernestine, and Justine in particular are bent over one page, looking intently at one photograph.

“What’s so interesting?” he asks. “Something we should be alarmed about?”

“Sarah!” Adicia shouts. “It’s Sarah!  She’s in a picture!”

“You’ll have to tell me more details,” Veronica says. “Sarah is a common enough name that I know I’ve delivered more than a few.  Most of my Sarahs didn’t pronounce it with a long A, though.”

“Sarah Katz, our nanny till our mean mother fired her in June of ’62! She was born in Germany and came to America in ’47.  I know it’s our Sarah.  Even the tattoo on this woman’s arm has the same numbers as our Sarah’s tattoo.”

Ernestine brings the book over to show Allen, and his jaw drops when he too recognizes the face of the woman who helped to raise him since he was three years old.  Since he wasn’t as close to her as his sisters were, he wouldn’t know if the tattoo bears the exact same numbers, but he does see a serial number tattooed on this woman’s left forearm.

“I remember that woman.  Her name is Sarah with a long A, and her last name is still Katz.  I think she’s the only woman I’ve ever delivered who had a different last name from her husband.  She said after all she went through under the Nazis, may they all burn in Hell for what they did to so many innocent people, she couldn’t dream of giving up the identity she had when she survived.  She also said she was the only member of her family to survive, so it was doubly important to her to hold onto her original name.  Her husband’s name is Henry Rosen, short for Heinrich.  She was one of the oldest first-time mothers I’ve ever worked with.  I delivered her son Friedrich in August of ’65, when she was thirty-eight.  She called him Fritz for short, after her father.  She’s expecting another child now, and wants me to deliver her again.”

“Sarah finally found a husband and had her own baby!” Justine says happily. “Our mother wouldn’t let her even go back to school.  The bad guys in Germany kicked her out of public school when she was fourteen, so she never went to high school or college.  And then she had to spend all her time taking care of us, so she was never able to really do anything else.  Our mother wouldn’t have let her go on dates, get married, or have a baby anyway.”

Sweet Saturday Samples


(If you’re looking for the A to Z post, scroll to the one below this.)

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.