Nobody’s Runner Up: A Havana Love Story for Purim by Judy Bolton-Fasman

Nothing in Brooklyn could rival the formal dances in Havana at the Patronato de la Communidad Hebreo de Cuba. And nothing in the world could rival the exquisite Purim Ball of 1954 at the Patronato. Although my nineteen-year old mother was not selected as the Queen Esther of the ball that night, she was one of Esther’s four attendants—a very high honor for a girl whose father couldn’t afford to buy the title for her. It was also the night she fell in love with Manuel. She was wearing a black sleeveless velvet gown that her mother made for her, the neckline studded with tiny, starry rhinestones.

Matilde Alboukrek Bolton

Matilde Alboukrek Bolton

Falling in love with Manuel was fated, she thought. Not three weeks earlier, my mother tripped on the University of Havana’s famous stone staircase that fanned down to the street. She limped to the university clinic where a handsome doctor had dressed her scraped knee. Here he was again at the Purim Ball.

My mother has always believed in signs more than she believes in God.

**

On her first day of classes at the university, my mother ventured forth alone to the campus from her flat on La Calle Mercéd in Old Havana. She had just enough money for bus fare and a Coca Cola. It had been a fierce struggle to persuade my grandfather, my Abuelo, to allow her out at all. In his mind, the university was no place for a girl, particularly a Jewish girl. Abuelo slapped my mother when she told him she had been accepted to the university. And in one of his drunken rages, he beat my grandmother, Abuela, for encouraging my mother to apply.

“A girl needs an education,” Abuela screamed. “She’ll work like a burra, if she doesn’t go to school—a burra like me sewing until her fingers fall off.”

Abuelo begrudgingly, soberly relented, but gave his daughter grim odds: “You will come home with a Christiano,” he predicted “and if you do—te lo juro—I swear—you will be dead to me.”

But at the ball my mother defied her father’s odds and danced with the Jewish Manuel all night. Manuel stroked her knee, now fully healed, through the black velvet of her dress as she sipped lemonade. This was love, my mother thought.

**

By the winter of 1959, my mother’s heart was broken forever. She had followed Manuel from Cuba to New York. She believed that Manuel had not asked her to join him in the United States right away so that she could finish her studies in case Batista reopened the University of Havana. But soon after she arrived, she understood his noble gesture for what it was: Manuel did not want her.

My mother stayed in America anyway, where she endured the cold and year-round homesickness in a room she rented from her father’s cousins. When she came down with pneumonia during her first New York winter, she stayed in bed, feverish and disoriented. The Hungarian girls she worked with at the watch factory, where she typed invoices, brought her homemade pastries. While her friends’ political conflagration in Budapest happened in 1956, Castro had only recently come down from the Sierra Maestra Mountains, marching into the center of Havana on New Year’s Day, 1959.

Once she was well enough, my mother’s cousins encouraged her to go to Saturday night dances for Jewish singles, but she preferred to stay in with them and watch Perry Mason and Lawrence Welk. Those dances were for chusmas—girls who wore ankle bracelets and bright red toenail polish—on the prowl for men of equally questionable status.

**

Bound up in my mother’s lifelong sorrow has always been the loss of her nineteen-year old self, the girl who was so nearly the belle of the Purim Ball that she inflated the honor of runner-up into a victory of its own. “I was prettier than any of these girls,” she sighed when we watched a beauty contest on television.

That part she got right. The proof is in the black and white photograph I have of my mother taken shortly after the Purim Ball. Her head is slightly turned to the right; she seems to be gazing off into the future. Her wavy black hair is loose and cascades down her back. Her lips are dark, her eyebrows arched like a movie star’s.

At nineteen, my mother is magnificent. She is nobody’s runner up.

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That Downtown Feeling by Judy Bolton-Fasman

Here in Boston Filene’s Basement is shutting its doors for good in a few days. I walked into the Newbury Street store last week, but I didn’t have the stomach for picking through a carcass. Nothing lasts. Not Filene’s. Not Woodward & Lothrop. Not Gimbels. Not even the idea of a Downtown.

On Saturday afternoons of my childhood, my mother and I took the Connecticut Transit bus that stopped in front of our house and headed east to G. Fox & Company—downtown Hartford’s largest department store, and land of the crisp navy blue shopping bags. We’d get off at the corner of Asylum and Main, and walk a block to the bustling commerce of G. Fox’s eleven floors.

The grand escalator that made G. Fox such an adventure for me was just past the fragrant counters of cosmetics and perfume. The slow moving silver escalators gleamed affordable luxury. Our first stop was on the fourth floor for lunch in the Connecticut Room. The Connecticut Room was wallpapered with scenes of Connecticut history, an involved pictorial narrative that had no obvious place for me.

The hostess handed me a red crayon with the children’s menu and sat Mom and me where we had a good view of the Saturday fashion show. The elegant models mingled on the floor with uniformed waitresses who served lunches in the same unobtrusive way they had done for decades.

Those downtown Saturdays, my mother splurged on beauty. G. Fox’s eleventh floor smelled of that beauty hard at work—hot wax, nail polish, and hair dye. If we had time, we’d pop into J.J. Newberry across the street—a five and dime store that was all linoleum flooring and plastic bins. My mother searched for glittery green and blue eye shadows and thick-as-a-brick red lipsticks. I’d paw through the bins looking for anything shiny. And sometimes I would emerge with a treasure like the brown plastic purse in which I could see my reflection.

Other Saturday afternoons my mother and I changed direction and headed west to Lord & Taylor. The store was a chunky white brick building autographed with the inimitable black script that announced its name. Its gravitas defined Bishop’s Corner. All my mother and I had to do to get there was to cross the street and catch the Asylum Avenue bus crawling the nine-tenths of a mile to North Main Street in West Hartford. My father had measured the distance so he’d know precisely how far he walked on his daily pre-dawn strolls.

My mother never needed money at Lord & Taylor. Mrs. K. Harold Bolton said the raised lettering on the green store card. “Thank you, Mrs. Bolton,” said the sales ladies at the end of every transaction.

Mrs. K. Harold Bolton and I joined the other ladies lunching on the second floor of Lord & Taylor at the Birdcage. Mom ordered iced tea—smooth liquid amber that put me in mind of her sweet singing voice—and a small tossed salad to stay a size 6 and to feel entitled to share my chicken salad sandwich.

Wire cages—absurd mobiles—dangled from the Birdcage’s ceiling. Pastel birds, which against all odds were real, chirped in the cages. The waitresses pushed carts of tea sandwiches and precious deserts. Nothing steaming, nothing sliding down mounds of grease. The Birdcage was the epicenter of politeness and good manners.

I still miss the grand, multi-storied department store. I miss the silver-toothed escalator that snaked its way from the bottom to the top of G. Fox. I miss the thrill of the hunt in a space big enough to buy a winter coat on the fourth floor and a 45RPM record on the eleventh. I miss the way Mom and I changed worlds—from suburban to urban—in a fifteen minute bus ride. But most of all I miss that Downtown Hartford feeling where I once stood at the center of the universe waiting for a bus.