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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Making the Simple Complicated

Last year my dear friend Miriam Cohen and I celebrated milestone birthdays in different cities. She turned 80 in Manhattan, and I celebrated my 50th in Boston. The year I met her had also been a milestone birthday for me – my 25th. I was working as an administrative assistant at the Jewish Theological Seminary in New York and trying – maybe not as hard as I should have – to finish my master’s degree at Columbia. Miriam worked upstairs from me in the Office of Student Life.

I don’t exactly remember how I met Miriam, much the same way I don’t remember when I didn’t know her. I do remember I was deep in the doldrums – no degree yet, no more boyfriend, no apartment. One by one those things got fixed, slowly, sometimes painfully. With each step forward there was Miriam cheering me on. “You’re young and you’re beautiful and you can’t be bothered.” The last time she said this to me was on my 50th birthday.

It was the late 1980s when I finally hunkered down and finished my thesis. I moved on from the seminary, but I stayed connected with Miriam. We both thought it was a hoot that she and her husband, Joseph, had a place at a Catskills bungalow colony. It was a sweet little place where I slept late, ate a lot (Miriam was a wonderful cook) and read books.

Joseph had been living with cancer for a few years. One day she called to cancel our lunch date; Joseph was in the hospital. I told her I’d keep her company until her sisters arrived. She never liked to impose, but when she accepted my offer I knew Joseph was dying. We sat for hours outside his room chatting and crying. Each time Miriam checked on him, she removed his oxygen mask to kiss him.

After Joseph died, we’d frequently met for Chinese food on Broadway, where we would people watch our way through dinner. If a Sunday began to feel too dreary for either of us, we’d get on the crosstown bus and go to a museum. Dinner, museum, movie – it was a comfortable, familiar routine that we wrapped ourselves in like a fleece blanket.

When I married Ken, I relocated to Baltimore. I was still homesick for New York and frequently visited, almost always staying with Miriam on the Upper West Side. At night, we’d lie in her bed and watch television. “Are you happy?” She only had to ask me once to hear the answer she wanted.

Miriam never had children of her own, so I sent her cards on Mother’s Day and Valentine’s Day because that’s what Joseph did. “You were my only Valentine this year,” she once told me. And, of course, there were the birthdays. We both understood that while she wasn’t my mother, she was family.

The last time I saw my dear friend was at Anna’s bat mitzvah, almost four years ago. She steeled herself and came alone. I saw what a hardship it was for her to get to Boston and didn’t send her an invitation to Adam’s bar mitzvah last year. I knew that was the wrong thing to do when she wrote how much she enjoyed reading a midrash I had constructed for Adam’s big day. “Thank you for the pleasure your columns provide,” she wrote to me. I had no right to decide that she wasn’t up to traveling to Boston.

On Miriam’s 80th birthday I sent her flowers. On the telephone, I promised that we would celebrate “our big fat Jewish birthdays” in style with dinner and a show.

Late March came and I had an opportunity to travel to Spain with Ken and Adam. My friend understood. Of course, I couldn’t pass up Spain. She waited patiently. More excuses. There was Passover, the end of the school year. I was packing Adam up for camp, trying to squirrel away money for our big night on the town.

There was always an excuse.

This past August 4 I was on my way back home from Hartford. My sister and I had gone down to check on my mother. This meant grocery shopping, taking Mom for a manicure and throwing out some of her endless clutter without her noticing. I was exhausted and so my sister volunteered to drive back. Halfway home my cell phone rang. It was Miriam’s niece. I had never met her, but Miriam always talked about her with great affection. “When did she die?” I asked.

But the heartbreak of this story is not what you think it is. Yes, I should not have put off seeing my friend. But more important, I should have remembered that we were always happy just to be in each other’s company, doing little things like people-watching at our favorite Chinese restaurant on Broadway.

For the rest of my life I will repent the sad, shameful truth that I passed up something that would have been so joyously simple because I made it so overwhelmingly complicated.