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.

Advertisements

Life In Translation by Judy Bolton-Fasman

My mother masks her creeping frailty behind a fraying quirkiness. She lives a couple of hours away from me in a shambled two-story colonial to which she’s laid siege at 1735 Asylum Avenue. It’s the home to which she brought her babies from the hospital. It’s the home that I left to after I graduated from college. It’s the home where my wedding dress hung on the living room mantle while I got ready. It’s the home where my father died.

It was once a house bulging with the cacophony of industry—the ratatatat of my father the accountant’s adding machine, the thick-as-molasses voices of kids reciting stem-changing Spanish verbs at my mother’s summer school. I’d sit at the top of the basement stairs listening to her drill her hapless students like the master sergeant she was meant to be.

When she retired as a Spanish teacher, she forged a new and exciting career as a court interpreter. Her specialties were drug busts and juvenile cases. A judge once scolded her for interfering with a 15 year-old’s sentencing. “Pobresito,” my mother interrupted. “Poor kid, he didn’t mean it.” It wasn’t the first time my mother was in contempt of something.

When her legs worked, my non-driving mother crisscrossed Connecticut on Amtrak and Greyhound to get to far-flung courts in Waterbury and New Haven. Though she’d never admit it, she was a callejera—someone who liked to be out and about. And for years I was her callejera-in-training on the streets of Downtown Hartford. Saturday afternoons we set out looking for bargains and chicken salad sandwiches in Sage-Allen’s basement. Sage-Allen may have been G. Fox’s poor cousin, but it was the only place in town to get a raspberry soda to go with our sandwiches. And their coffee was my mother’s reliable laxative.

Sage-Allen is long gone. A few years into retirement, my mother replaced the store’s coffee with something she needed more—adrenalin—the adrenalin of processing sixteen arraignments after a night of drug busts. My mother the translator was as quick as ticker tape. Including the Portuguese my mother learned years ago from our house cleaner, she knows a suspect’s rights in three languages.

And she knows her rights too. She’s not budging from Asylum Avenue. She’s not transferring power of attorney to her adult children. If it comes down to it, she’ll get to a bill on second or third notice. She’s not in a hurry anymore. If someone wants to learn Spanish from her, he sits at the dining room table where she props up a book of Post-it-Notes as big as a blackboard. Behind her, she’s tacked up a gag sign that says, “Parking for Cubans Only.”

Yes, my mother the callejera, is now parked. She’s mostly parked in a recliner that plugs into the wall. A push of the button will practically eject her from her seat like a cartoon character—spiral jack and all. When she’s not sitting in the den watching her novellas, she’s parked in the chair lift that first scarred the wall when it was installed for my father. After he died, Mom couldn’t bear to see it anymore. Eight years later, she had a newer model reinstalled. I think she takes joy rides in that chair.

My mother lives amidst the shambles of her own making and fantasies of her own necessity. She wants to paint the house, fix the crumbling concrete front steps, install central air. None of that will happen. Nor will she swap out her antique boiler for natural gas. Life is just so on Asylum Avenue. And life two hours away from Asylum Avenue is waiting for my mother to run out of heating oil, for her cable cum lifeline to go out or for my mother to fall as if she were the star of a bad commercial.

Life a car ride away from my mother is waiting for shambles to become ruins.

 

 

 

Lies My Mother Told Me

When I heard that Leslie Starobin, a Boston-based artist, was looking for first generation Jewish immigrants from Latin America for her series of montages called “The Last Address,” I got in touch with her. She was thrilled to hear from a Cuban-American Jew — a so-called Juban — and felt it was fortuitous that I was virtually right in her backyard.

I didn’t have much to offer Leslie in the way of the physical objects, such as the clothing, visas and report cards that are often central to her work. “Castro took everything” was the refrain of my childhood. What I do have is a picture of my mother at 19 in which her lips are dark and her eyebrows are arched like a movie star’s.

Compiling a family’s oral history is integral to Leslie’s artistic process. To that end, Leslie extensively interviewed my mother, who remembered that she sat for the picture at a photographer’s studio in downtown Havana after a long day of classes at the university.

My mother also told Leslie her signature story. “I still see Manzanito after he was gunned down. We called him Manzanito because his cheeks were red and full — like little apples — manzanitos.” Manzanito was Jose Antonio Echeverria, the president of the University Students Federation, who had led an attempt to overthrow Fulgencio Batista by storming the presidential palace. On March 13, 1957, Echeverria was slain by Batista’s henchmen — only steps away from the famous staircase leading into the University of Havana. My mother has recounted taking a quiz in a nearby classroom when she heard the gunshots.

“Your mother told you that she went to the University of Havana?” asked Olivia Kantor, who knew my mother in Cuba, and was friendly with her after they both immigrated to Brooklyn.

She was surprised — more surprised than when I called her out of the blue and introduced myself as Harold and Matilde Bolton’s oldest child.

After Olivia exposed my mother’s half-century-old lie, I told her that Mom had subsequently earned a master’s degree in Spanish literature. It was the late ’60s and my mother talked her way into the program — secure in the fact that a university transcript was impossible to retrieve from Cuba.

I’m not surprised that my mother, a life-long fantasist, concocted this ruse. At this point, I think she actually believes that she went to the University of Havana. Since my mother’s interview with Leslie this past summer, I’ve tried to talk to her about her undergraduate status. I pointed out that the University of Havana had closed in November of 1956 and didn’t reopen until 1959, when she was already in the United States. There was no way she was in class in March of 1957. She screamed that maybe I was book smart, but I had no common sense.

Whatever book smarts I have, I owe them to my mother. I’d go wide-eyed each time she told me that Miguel de Unamuno lost his faith when he was just five years old. My bedtime stories revolved around Don Quixote’s adventures with the hapless Sancho Panza. Mom made her own stunning montage of narratives. And in the process she educated the both of us.