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.

“Halloween 1959”

Halloween is my favoritest non-religious holiday (my favorite religious holiday is Yom Kippur), and I was hoping for a Halloween wedding. Unfortunately, someone wasn’t on the same urgent timetable I am about making things official and actually planning a wedding far enough in advance. Anyway, I freaking love Halloween, all the spooky decorations, the ghost stories, the candy, the haunted houses, the classic horror movies (back when movies were still intelligently-written instead of full of unnecessary sex, violence, and curse words that serve no purpose to the plot or characters’ development), the traditional Irish customs of Samhain, the costumes, the everything.

I’ve written Halloween scenes/chapters in quite a few of my books, but the one I’m sharing here is Chapter 3 of Adicia’s story, “Halloween 1959.” This was written when I was still reconstructing what I could from memory, and I knew I’d had a Halloween section in the then-lost first draft. The 10 chapters of Part I were deliberately written as short (Chapter 10, “The Sacrifice of Gemma,” is by far the longest, at 30 double-spaced pages; all the rest are about 10-15 pages), simplistic, centered around a holiday or period in the calendar year, like Easter, Xmas, Halloween, Thanksgiving, St. Patrick’s Day, New Year, etc.

I was going for the style a lot of the classic young people’s series I loved growing up did—the writing style starts out rather simplistic since the characters are so young, and as they get older and more mature, the writing style and the storylines gradually get more complex, mature, deep. In Part I, Adicia is just a little girl, five years old until the closing section of Chapter 10, when she’s six and serving as the flower girl at Gemma’s forced wedding. I tried as best I could to write most of it through the eyes of a five-year-old girl with a big imagination in spite of her uncertainty about getting away from her poor class origins. She knows the world isn’t all puppies and flowers because of where she’s from, but at heart, she’s still only a little girl. I know now it’s not so popular to write an adult or mature teen book whose protagonist is a child for about half of the book, but I’m sure it’s not the first time such a book has been done.

***

“Look what I’ve got for you, Tommy!” Mrs. Troy dangles a sack in front of her pet child. “My friend and co-worker Mrs. Rossi on the third floor let me come over to use her sewing machine so I could make you this darling little Halloween costume!”

“Did you make the rest of us Halloween costumes too?” Adicia asks eagerly, wondering if perhaps her mother is growing a heart.

“Of course not.  I can’t waste my hard-earned money on fabric and thread to make costumes for eight other children.  And I’m not one of those television mothers, June Cleaver or Donna Reed.  You know very well I hate homemaking and don’t coddle children besides Tommy.”

Adicia’s heart sinks.  Her mother is still as self-centered and mean as she’s always been.

“You watch television, Mother?” Ernestine asks. “Do you watch it when you’re at work?”

“Some of the people I’ve worked with and for discuss the programs they like to watch.  I know as much about the popular shows as I would if I actually watched them every week.  Anyone who wants to can pitch in to get me and your father a television set for Christmas so we don’t have to learn about them from the weekly updates at work.”

“A television set must cost a fortune!” Emeline says. “The prices I see on them when we go to Macy’s and the other stores are more than a few weekly paychecks for both of you!”

Tommy rips open the sack. “I love you, Mommy!  I’m going to be a red crayon and collect lots of candy!”

“Can we go trick-or-treating too if we get our own costumes?” Adicia begs.

“You mistakes can do whatever you want, but I’d just make you turn over all your candy to Tommy.  You don’t deserve candy and chocolate.”

“What if Tommy gets so many cavities all his teeth fall out?” Emeline asks. “Can you afford the dental bills?”

“You think I really care if all his teeth fall out?  My golden boy prince has earned the right to eat a million pieces of candy in a row if he so wants.  Most people get a lot of false teeth and fillings through their lives.  Only uppity rich folk think they need to waste money on a foolish luxury like going to a dentist every year.  Ain’t it enough you all have toothbrushes?”

“And if my teeth fall out from eating lots of yummy candy, the Tooth Fairy will visit me and put money under my pillow!” Tommy crows.

“The Tooth Fairy never visited me any of the times I lost my teeth,” Adicia complains. “She’s never visited Ernestine or Emeline either.”

“The Tooth Fairy doesn’t exist,” Emeline says. “It’s a feel-good myth parents tell their children, like Santa or the Easter Bunny, so they won’t think their parents are the ones leaving money or presents.  If any of those figures really existed, they would’ve visited all of us equally, not just Prince Tommy.”

“Tommy, we’re going to carve a spooky jack-o-lantern together,” Mrs. Troy goes on, tuning out her daughters. “And you’re going to get a cute little plastic jack-o-lantern of your own to collect your candy in.  We’ll trick-or-treat at all the houses and apartments on the Lower East Side and try to get to at least one other neighboring area before the night is over.  I’ll be carrying a big pillowcase so you can dump your candy into it when your pumpkin overflows.  How could anyone not want to give such a sweet little angel an extra share of candy?”

“I’ll know if any of you dumb girls steals my candy!” Tommy warns his sisters.

Everyone in Adicia’s school except a few odd people from extremely religious families celebrates Halloween, and even most of the people in their otherwise downtrodden neighborhood decorate for Halloween and celebrate too.  The kids in the high school Gemma, Carlos, and Allen go to are having a Halloween dance and party, and even Lucine’s junior high school is having a Halloween dance and party festivities.  The elementary school Emeline, Ernestine, and Adicia go to has announced costume contests in each classroom, along with class parties and a big Halloween parade all around the school.  Adicia and her sisters will look and feel like outcasts when they show up to school on Friday, the day before Halloween, wearing their usual ragged hand-me-down clothes instead of Halloween costumes.  Sarah would probably make them costumes if they asked, but there isn’t enough money to get the fabric and thread, nor enough time to sew them by hand.  The Troys don’t own a sewing machine, so Mrs. Troy uses their neighbors’ machines on the odd occasion she wants to work on a larger sewing project like Tommy’s Halloween costume or a baby animal-themed quilt Tommy received for a third birthday present.

Most of the other kids in their classes will also be bringing in food for the parties, food made by their loving, attentive mothers.  A lot of the food will be Halloween-themed, like cupcakes with little ghosts outlined on top, cakes with bats and spiders frosted on them, and hollowed-out pumpkins filled with soup made with autumnal vegetables.  Those mothers take pride in their cooking and homemaking.  Mrs. Troy can’t understand the idea of asking children to bring in food from home for parties, and says it’s just a way for mothers to compete with one another in who makes the best baked goods.  She wouldn’t even know what to do with a box of pre-made cake or brownie batter if it dropped into her lap along with the mixing bowl, baking pan, whisk, and wooden spoon.

“Do you think we’ll get punished by our teachers when we show up tomorrow without costumes?” Adicia asks Ernestine on Thursday after dinner, when they’re in their tiny bedroom.

“We live in a historically poor neighborhood,” Emeline speaks up. “Our teachers will be idiots if they send us to the principal’s office because we didn’t wear costumes.  My teacher never said it was a required assignment like doing your math homework or bringing something for show and tell.”

“Maybe we can take some of Gemma’s makeup and use that as part of a costume,” Ernestine suggests. “And you know she sometimes leaves her handbag lying around.  We could take a little money from it and go out to buy something.”

“Gemma would notice we stole her makeup and her money,” Emeline points out. “I saw her costume hanging in her wardrobe.  She’s going as a ballerina to her Halloween party on Saturday night.”

“How can our mother call herself a real mother?” Adicia protests. “Real mothers love all their kids and do nice things for them.  Our mother only loves Tommy and maybe Gemma.  I don’t even think she loves Carlos and Allen.  She just likes them ‘cause they’re boys and they help with money.”

“Like Sarah says, giving birth to a child doesn’t always make you a mother,” Emeline says. “And there are more ways to be a mother than having biological children.  Some teachers and nuns have more kids than a lot of people who just happened to reproduce.”

Out in the living room, Gemma is spinning around in her ballerina costume and whining about how it doesn’t fit as well as it did when she bought it.  Sarah has been pressed into commission letting out the waistline.

“I think someone had a few too many cream puffs on her last date,” Carlos sneers. “Or you’re just overeating on your lunch break at your big fancy job.”

Gemma steps back into her room quickly to take it off and put her normal clothes back on.  When she comes out, she dumps the costume in Sarah’s lap.

“I had a sundae on my last date with Johnny Jefferson, and he was nice enough to let me eat most of his too.  We also had steak for dinner and then went out again for apple pie before he walked me home.”

“Men don’t like a woman who overeats,” Mrs. Troy proclaims as she lights a cigarette. “Nobody loves a fat girl.”

“It’s called a healthy appetite, Mother, and why shouldn’t I eat my fill when I have the chance?  You’d prefer I keep to our pathetic roadkill and spoilt turnips diet even when I’m at work, on dates, and out with friends?”

“She’s getting above her raising,” Carlos says derisively. “Next thing you’ll know, she’ll be moving into a swank mansion on Long Island with a millionaire husband and putting her three kids in private schools.”

“I actually would like to move to Long Island or one of the nicer neighborhoods uptown, and I do intend to only have a few kids as opposed to a huge pile of brats.  I bet your stupid self will be in jail or a sanitarium when I’m a proper society woman with a respectable husband.  How many times have you gotten high or drunk already this week, Carlos?  I admit I smoke sometimes on dates or with friends, but smoking cigarettes isn’t bad for your health or something only degenerates and delinquents do.”

“We’ll find you a husband we approve of by the time you’re twenty, Gemma,” Mrs. Troy promises. “He won’t be as bad-off as we are, but he won’t be a rich man either.  I hope you get all this teenage foolishness out of your system by the time you need to settle down and be a full-time wife and mother.”

Gemma dismissively waves her hand at her mother. “I am going to graduate high school as the Class of 1960, a woman of a new decade.  Your worldview will be a relic before you know it.  I’m going to have fun, not saddle myself down to a guy you want me to marry when I’m not even old enough to vote yet.”

“Do you think you expanded your waist for another reason besides overeating recently?” Allen asks.

Gemma turns bright red. “What kind of immoral, loose woman do you take me for?  Maybe you and Carlos do those things with girls, but I value my reputation.  God, I’d kill myself if I got in trouble like that.”

“Sometimes I want to kill myself just for living in this tenement,” Allen says. “But unlike you, other people depend on me to help take care of them.”

Carlos wanders over to the kitchen, where he, Allen, and their parents have a drug lab of sorts.  He wishes his sisters would all shut up about how the money they’ve poured into drugs, drug paraphernalia, and the home lab over the years could’ve been used to buy better food and clothes, or to upgrade their living quarters somewhat.  Carlos expects all of his younger sisters to take up drugs and alcohol themselves when they get a bit older, and for the same reasons he, Allen, and their parents did.  They weren’t motivated by a love of breaking the law and putting potentially dangerous chemical mixes into their bodies so much as they wanted an easy, reliable escape from the hard life they were born into.  It remains a surprise to him that Gemma has never touched drugs, and that Lucine hasn’t expressed any interest in them either, despite being about the age he and Allen were when they started dabbling.

In the morning, Adicia, Emeline, and Ernestine head out to their elementary school, wearing their usual hand-me-down rags.  Ernestine tried to go to school in her pajamas and pass that off as a costume, but Mrs. Troy wouldn’t let her leave the house like that.  Emeline thought of going dressed like a boy, in pants and an old shirt belonging to her older brothers, but couldn’t find a hat to tuck her hair up under.  At least Lucine is in eighth grade now and isn’t expected to wear a costume to school, in spite of the class parties.

“What a surprise, the dirty Troy girls couldn’t afford costumes,” one of the Debbies in Emeline’s class taunts when they get to the schoolyard.

“I think they did dress up.  As their ragged selves, in costumes they didn’t need to make specially for today,” one of the Barbaras in Ernestine’s class says.

“How often does your mother brush or comb your hair?” Theresa Mladsky comes over to them and starts walking around them. “All three of you have hair full of rats’ nests.”

“We do get our hair brushed by our nanny,” Ernestine says. “It’s harder to untangle when you’re not able to get it brushed every day.”

Adicia looks around with a mixture of jealousy and wonder.  All the other boys and girls on the schoolyard are dressed in Halloween costumes—witches, wizards, cowboys, cowgirls, Indians, monsters, princesses, kings, queens, princes, ballerinas, Chinese girls, outlaws, circus animals, cereal boxes, scarecrows, Vampyres, and Frankenstein’s monster.  Their mothers probably spent a lot of time sewing their costumes, and making the special Halloween-themed baked goods they’ll be eating at their class parties.

“I don’t think girls who came to school without costumes should get any candy or food at our parties,” Jody Krause says.

“And I don’t think people who are so rude and mean to the faces of people who never did anything bad to them deserve to go through life with so many nice things,” Emeline says. “Why are any of yous so mean to us?  Are yous just offended we’re different from you, and that difference makes yous uncomfortable?  I was reading the English translation of a book our German nanny recommended, and it says when you hate someone, you hate something in that person that’s part of yourself, since what isn’t part of ourselves doesn’t disturb us.”

“Stupid bookworm,” Jeanie Mraz says as she walks into the building.

“I bet you need glasses before we graduate sixth grade,” one of the Lindas in Emeline’s class says. “I’m shocked you don’t need them yet from all that squinting at books you do.  And no boy wants to date a girl with glasses or who knows more than he does.”

“Can I read that book after you’re done with it?” Ernestine asks.

Emeline smiles down at her. “I don’t know if it’s at your reading level.  It’s a book from the adult section of the library.  Sarah says the author won the Nobel Prize in Literature in 1946.”

“I wish I read well enough to read grownup books.”

“You can borrow some of my other books I have out from the library.  I’m working my way through the Five Little Peppers series and am only on the second book right now.  They’re really old books, but they are children’s books.  The author had a number of limitations as a writer, and it’s really obvious it was written in the Victorian era, but they’re nice classic children’s books at heart.”

The children start filtering into the school when the principal appears on the steps.  The Troy girls join hands and slowly walk over to the steps leading up to the entrance for girls.  Emeline grumbles under her breath about how stupid it is that schools still have different doors for boys and girls when it’s practically 1960.

“We’ll meet back out on the playground for lunch,” Emeline tells them. “And I’m sure we’ll have a nice Halloween celebration of some type with Sarah, Justine, and Lucine tomorrow, when we’ll have the apartment to ourselves.”

Adicia sits through the day miserably, watching the other little girls and boys in kindergarten walking about in their wonderful costumes and helping themselves to the cupcakes, cookies, cakes, tortes, pies, and other wonders whipped up by mothers who actually enjoy being mothers and treating their children in a special way.  She and her sisters are in a very small group that has to stand off to the side when the costumed students put on their big parade around the entire school.  At least the teachers didn’t have to make them feel even more shunned and just had students with the best costumes go on the parade.  Adicia can hardly stand the thought of sweet little Justine, almost eight months old, having to go through this same ordeal when her time comes to start school.

Saturday is Halloween.  The apartment is indeed emptied out for Adicia and her sisters, as Gemma is at her party, Carlos and Allen are out with some girls, Mrs. Troy is taking Tommy trick-or-treating, and Mr. Troy is picking up a few extra shifts at the factory.  As depressing as their surroundings are, it’s still nice to have a little privacy for awhile.

“I’m going to make lovely Halloween costumes for my kids when I’m a mother,” Ernestine declares as they gather under the table, the lights dimmed, to tell spooky stories. “I’ll have a nice modern sewing machine instead of that ancient black thing our mother uses when she makes stuff for Tommy.”

“I would’ve loved to be something historical,” Emeline says. “A Pilgrim, a Colonial girl, a pioneer, a Medieval princess, something that lets me express my love of history.”

“Did you celebrate Halloween in Germany, Sarah?” Adicia asks.

“Halloveen is an American holiday.  I never saw anybody celebrate it.  All I know about it, I learnt since I came to dis country.”

“Halloween started in Ireland thousands of years ago,” Emeline says. “It’s only relatively recently gotten more and more popular in the West, mostly America and Canada.  It’s still celebrated in a more traditional fashion in Spanish-speaking countries.  If the high school taught Spanish, I’d be looking forward to learning about how it’s celebrated in the various parts of Latin America when I start high school in three years.”

“In any other family, you vould’ve been enrolled in a special school for gifted yout or at least skipped a grade or two,” Sarah says.

“My teachers always knew I’m advanced for my age and that I’ve read my way through almost all the books in all my classrooms’ libraries and the main school library.  It’ll probably be awhile before I get through every book that interests me at the Tompkins Square Library.  I go to the Hamilton Fish Park Library sometimes too.  That’ll have to do for now.”

“It’s colder than usual in here,” Adicia says. “Can someone put the stove on?”

The lights go out as Sarah is getting up and going over to the stove.  Lucine picks up the flashlight and starts looking through the apartment for matches and candles.  The fuse box is located in the basement and is only supposed to be accessed by the landlord, who usually only has anything to do with his tenants when he’s evicting them, demanding back rent, or shutting off various utilities for failure to pay those bills.

“Do you think our cheapskate parents didn’t pay again, or is it just a blackout?” Lucine asks. “Usually they don’t shut off utilities at the end of the month.  It’s usually a week or two after the first of the month.”

“It’s probably just a blackout,” Emeline says. “We can live without electricity for a little while.  How do you think people functioned in the days before gas and electricity gave us light and heat?”

Ernestine goes over to the door by the fire escape and looks outside. “The people in the building across the street from us don’t have any lights on either.  It must just be a local thing.”

“Can you tell us a scary story, Sarah?” Adicia asks. “But don’t make it too scary.”

“Oh, you can’t scare us that easily,” Ernestine boasts. “We are not babies, and we live with scarier stuff than some ghosts and witches that don’t even exist.”

Justine begins fussing on Sarah’s lap.  Lucine shines around the flashlight to locate the diaper bag where Sarah keeps diapers, diaper pins, bottles, Enfamil, and other baby supplies for Justine.  Since Justine was born in March, her own mother has never even changed one diaper or administered one feeding.  Since having her first four children before Sarah came along, she has only been actively involved in mothering with Tommy.  Adicia was only nineteen months old when Tommy was born, but Ernestine was two months shy of four, and remembers Mrs. Troy holding Tommy nice and close while she fed him a bottle of Similac she heated up, then lovingly burping him, bathing him, rocking him, changing him.  All because he turned out to be a boy.

“I’ll tell you a story from Grimm’s Fairy Tales,” Sarah says as she sits back under the table and guides the bottle into Justine’s mouth. “Emeline is very familiar vit dese stories, but I don’t know if she’s read all of dem.”

“It was the first book I ever read,” Emeline nods. “Our parents caught me reading it when I was three years old, and I got scared and pretended I was just looking at the pictures.  I didn’t get caught knowing how to read till I was four, but Sarah knew most of that time I could read.”

“I wish I could’ve learnt to read all by myself that young,” Lucine says. “I still think you’re some kind of savant for just waking up one day and starting to read from an adults’ book, no previous reading lessons or anything.”

“Let me tell you de story of de boy who vent to learn vat fear vas.  Once upon a time, a vater had two sons.  De younger son vas asked by his vater vat he’d like to learn to make a living, and said he vanted to learn how to shudder.  A man at church said he could teach de boy. After he learnt how to ring de church bell, he vas sent at midnight to ring de bell and de church man appeared dressed as a ghost.  De boy vanted to know vat vas going on, and ven he didn’t get an answer, he pushed de man down de stairs.  His vater vas very upset, and made him leave to learn how to shudder.  All de time de boy complained dat he didn’t how to shudder.  Den he vas advised to spend a night under de gallows, vere seven men vere hanging….”

Adicia and Ernestine sit wide-eyed as Sarah tells the story of the little boy who was so arrogantly fearless he wasn’t even scared by things that would scare the pants off any other child, like seeing a ghost, spending three nights in a haunted castle, sleeping under a gallows with seven dead bodies dangling from nooses, being attacked by dogs and cats in the darkened castle, seeing half a man falling down a chimney, witnessing a game of bowling played with skulls and severed legs, and being attacked by a man who comes back to life in a coffin.  They think the story is pretty scary, but can’t help but wondering if they would react in a similar apathetic and annoyed fashion if they were dealt with some of these terrifying things.  Sarah went through a lot of things they think are pretty scary and horrible too, and she’s said she became numb to it all after awhile.  It seems only fitting to the two of them that the first book Emeline ever read contained this and other grim and disturbing stories.  They all know better than to believe life is like a Disney fairy tale.  Where they’re from, life is more like a Grimm’s fairy tale.