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Roger N. Meyer "...of a different mind "
Puzzle Pieces Image

MAMA AND PAPA I LOVE YOU
[Written prior to the death of her parents
by Beatrice Meyer
circa 1968]

 

No matter where I begin, I find it impossible to arrange any sequence of events about Mama. They don't work chronologically. I try to put her in a time frame as she was young, thin, serious, bent over a washtub in Hadlyme, Connecticut. Instead, she comes through in flashback twenty years later, in Minneapolis, dancing her famous full bloomers and camisole-stocking dance in our living room, while Papa can't hold back the laughter and affection gleaming on his face. One tough Papa.

Or Mama standing whitefaced and furious, giving Papa back as good as he lashed out with. He, shouting so loudly the veins in his short neck are swollen, his light brown eyes bulging. Mama's eyes are icy blue, her hatred total. "Go then," she says. "Go. Who needs you?" and then there's Mama in her eighties with her arm through Papa's. "Darling, when you get old you must adjust. Shah, shah, Ruben."

No. I can't pin Mama in one place. Now she's skating on a pond below the dam in Hadlume where the old coffin factory used to be. Now she's in South Dakota, trying to row against the wind when a sudden storm nearly drowns us in the usually sluggish Sioux River that winds through the little town of Dell Rapids.

Now I'm five and in the bedroom behind our little store in Hadlyme, as Mama unclenches the sticky Hershey kiss I'm hiding in the hand behind me saying, "Beatie, darling, you know you mustn't have another piece," and handing it to my golden curled little brother Dick, as I run from the room crying bitterly.

But now Mama is bathing me in the washtub behind the store, carrying buckets of fresh water from La Place's well next door. Every bucket has to be cranked up by hand and when she is through scrubbing me, she refills the tub nearly to the top and lets me splash there, gloriously cool and happy in the hot afternoon.

Here, in the front room of our New Haven brownstone on the corner of Oak Street, Mama is flirting with Professor Cornblatt who takes the long train trip from Brooklyn just for Mama, to give me my first piano lesson. He introduces me carefully to the keys in his soft voice, his Russian accent pronounced, his breath smelling of Sen-Sen. "Dese are de vite nuts. Dese are de black nuts," he says. Papa, smarting jealously in the kitchen, is saying, "Vite nutes. Black nuts. Vot kind of a nut is he?" And Mama smiles much too sweetly and brings the professor his tall glass of tea with a teasponful of raspberry preserves in it.

There's no sequence to Mama. She pushes in me as once I must have pushed from within her to be born. It isn't only a matter of having loved her. It is just that there's no place to begin when something has been forever and there's no place it ends.

With Papa it's different. I fell in love with Papa when I was only eleven and again when I was thirteen and that time it was forever. Only the September before the first time, Papa was feeling so rich that for my birthday I was allowed to buy as many pounds of Indian nuts as could carry. Up until then I had to dig them out a few at a time from the penny slot machine. Imagine being able to buy Indian nuts by the pound. It is small wonder I fell in love with Papa.

Only a year and a half later, suddenly, Papa had to leave us and start all over again in Sioux Falls, South Dakota, leaving us behind in Savin Rock, on the Sound, near New Haven. He and Mama walked through the nights with low, frightened planning. This is how I learned my Yiddish, through such nights, straining to hear them speaking, so Dick and I couldn't understand their anguish.

Something had happened to Papa and Uncle Jack's pants' manufacturing business, something called "bankrupt," and Papa kept insisting he would pay it all back somehow and Mama could hear him crying out one night, "What else am I thinking of when I am ashamed for my children to know their father can't pay his bills?"

Then he was gone and we were alone with Mama until school was out and we could join him. I wrote letters but they were letters as to a father but not a real person. Then one day I found a picture of him, young and strong and I thought, handsome, a picture taken the year befor they were married in Brooklyn.

For the first time I really looked at this man, my father. And I was proud of his strength and forgot his temper and his unhappiness and his frightening angers. And I remembered all the things I had heard and was a part of from the time I was a little girl brought from Brooklyn to the little river village of Hadlyme, because Mama refused to bring her children up with the constant fear of strikes in New York. And Papa, pants cutter, always standing up and making speeches in Yiddish calling, "Strike, strike!"

Then the waiting was over and it was time to go to Papa. We all had new clothes. Mama sold everything but the Horace Waters upright piano. She refused to go to South Dakota and the wild Indians and the shoot-em-up cowboys without giving her only daughter her piano and maybe some day again, piano lessons, so Beatie could learn to play Chopin waltzes like Mama's sister Aunt Ettie.

The plan was that we were to live in Sioux Falls and Papa would make a living from his brother Abe's little store and Dick and I would make new friends and Mama would, too. And then that first winter, colder than any we had ever known, my Uncle Abe came back from Minneapolis and said, "Ruben, I have to come back to this store. I'm broke. You'll have to find something else to do."

What could Papa find to do in this land of wide praries and dry summer wind storms? How could a man who had climbed up from being an apprenticed glove cutter in Russia, to an elite pants cutter in New York and then the co-owner of a pants manufacturing business, go back to work for somebody else and anyway -- in Sioux Falls, doing what?

By late November, Papa's brother Nathan found us a cafe to buy, twenty miles from Sioux Falls in a town of eighteen hundred people: Dell Rapids. And Papa's youngest brother Irving, helped with the loan. All that winter we trudged through the snow and slush to the care where no Goyim came to eat from the Jews.

For the first three weeks, the Ku Klux Klan burned crosses on the hill across from our house, the only house we could find for rent, across the tracks -- the two holer outhouse freezing as we came booted and heavily coated to use it.

No one came to our Dells Cafe to eat the dinners and lunches the Jew woman cooked and that Jew fella served. We let the cook go. We let the waitress go. Mama cooked short orders. I learned to wait on table. And the next summer, Papa said, "The hell with it. If they don't want a Jewish restaurant, we'll give them a Jewish ice cream parlor." And Papa was the first in town to install an electric ice cream freezer.

Now I was thirteen and Mama said, "Ruben, take Beatie to Sioux Falls and buy her a coat. Buy her a dress. It's a shame, our only daughter and she has nothing new to wear since we came to South Dakota."

So Papa took me shopping. Here was his child, already so obese I needed grown women's sizes, but so pretty, Papa said, with a face like an angel. And he bought a fine, pleated beige coat for thirty-five dollars. Then he was so proud and so overjoyed to have been able to buy "such a fine piece goods" he insisted also on a blue, pleated, little bonnet of a hat.

I must have looked terrible. I felt gorgeous. This time I fell in love for good, with Papa.


Bee Baxter Meyer
13625 Southwest 79 Court
Miami, 33158
233-7376

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