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.
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.