From a metal biscuit box at the back of a drawer in a desk that I rarely open, I recently unearthed an enchanting photograph of a woman who died in childbirth eighty-four years ago, someone thus unknown not only to me but also to her newborn child, my mother. Afraid of exposing the fading image to air and light, I had guarded it for decades and on seeing it again, discovered a young woman obviously enjoying the delight she must have given to all who observed her. It seemed somehow proper that I breathe life into this pastel-tinted person, that before once again interring her in the makeshift vault, I make a durable copy. She deserves to sit elegantly framed among the photos of my other honored relatives.
As far as I know, there exists only this single portrait of my corseted, graceful grandmother, Dora Cohen Posnansky, probably in her twenties at the time. Naturally, the limitations of a staged photograph in a professional studio must have inspired her to wear a lace collar and her finest skirt, ribbon-trimmed with a bow at the waist. She had wound a long string of beads high around her neck, knotting it at the throat, and adorned one of her gently folded hands with rings. With her dark hair parted in the center and pulled back, her pale eyes, full lips, and rounded but not buxom bodice, she gazes at me placidly, totally unaware of the untimely end in store for her.
Some years earlier, as teenagers at the end of the nineteenth century, my grandparents had emigrated from Poland to England, where they met and married. Although I have learned over the years a fair amount about his origins, I know nothing else about hers, except that in 1916, while suffering from a kidney ailment and with four daughters and one son already, Dora made the fatal decision to have her sixth baby at home. She had obstinately insisted that she needed to be there for all those children, the smallest of whom was, after all, only two years old. My late Auntie Raye, at thirteen Dora's oldest child, once mentioned the actual day of the tragedy to me as she was preparing afternoon tea. Her principal haunting memory, she said, remained the sodden pile of bloody bedding and towels.
Such was the sorrowful arrival of my mother, forever blemished by her catastrophic birth, and lest anyone forget, they named the baby Dora. Cherished while alive but appearing only sketchily in a few family reminiscences years later, her mother soon receded into the growing brood's clamoring demands and daily struggles to cope. The tiny children couldn't help but forget a dead mother, couldn't hold on to her face, her voice or her protective hands, and the older children carried her somewhere deep within, so sheathed against the grievous loss that they could barely conjure her up anymore, even if they wanted to. Hence, this once comely, corporeal woman, who bore many children and nurtured them, who veritably shone in her jewelry, charming clothes and natural beauty, could only be recalled later in differing, personal ways. Gradually, she took on the aura of a character in a novel.
Her husband, Simon, a tailor with a busy shop, urgently needed a surrogate mother for his children. He must have been heartbroken, but life had to go on. With a scarcity of available Jewish women in Bolton, England at that time, the family consensus pointed to his wife's first cousin as the logical choice, regardless of the fact that she was not quite sixteen years old. Had she been able to simply move in and function as a housekeeper, to cook, clean, and take care of the little ones without marriage, my grandfather might have consented to the suggestion. However, in the early part of the twentieth century, the idea of a young, unmarried Jewish woman living in the same home as the forty-one-year-old widower of her own cousin would never do. Not to mention the fact that the young woman's mother had an additional motive. Like most immigrants, she had always lived hand to mouth and desired a superior life for her children, a life that would ensure the kind of stability provided by a hard-working man with a small business. Quite ill herself, in fact in the process of dying, she wanted above all to see her daughter comfortably settled.
Although this big-boned daughter had none of my grandmother's dark beauty, she had, almost eerily, the same name: Dora Cohen. As might be expected, the prospect of marriage to a man twenty-five years her senior, whose oldest child was only two years younger than she, didn't exactly thrill her. I often wonder why Simon Posnansky, from all accounts a religious man, didn't insist on another alternative to forcing a young maiden into such a glaring excess of responsibility, why he couldn't have found another alternative, someone else to look after the little ones. Did such considerations even cross his mind?
With my modern sensibilities, I can only guess, but no matter what transpired in his conscience, other family members told the intended bride that if she balked, it would kill her mother. Only one concession did the girl's parents seek, that Simon would not consummate the marriage until she reached twenty years of age. Whether he honored that particular request or not, neither I nor anyone else will ever know.
On the day they went to obtain a marriage license, the justice of the peace took one look at the very young Dolly, as she had been nicknamed by her family, and asked if she "had to" get married. "Yes, I do," she replied, failing to understand his implication; she merely meant that she wouldn't dream of killing her own mother by disobeying orders. Three weeks after the wedding, her mother died anyway.
Still, Dolly claimed she never regretted her decision. If she had refused to marry Simon, she explained, she would have blamed herself all her life for her mother's death. In the active years that followed, she went on to produce another five children for my grandfather. When she bore her last baby, a girl, Simon's oldest daughter was thirty-eight years old. He passed away four years afterward, leaving a widow in her forties to spend the rest of her life without another husband.
My mother used to depict Dolly as a woman who had taken one large leap from childhood to adulthood and skipped her youth entirely, a frustrated soul who read romance stories in her rare free moments. Her sheer youth and energy must have been a burden at times. Over the years as the family grew, for instance, she always wanted to dance at the frequent family celebrations, but my grandfather, who was not to be challenged, disliked such activities and became jealous if she took to the dance floor with younger men. Dolly had to sit the dances out. I imagine her now as she appears in family photographs, dressed in a matronly way beyond her years, plump and rather plain, hands in her lap, a composed expression on her face, but with tapping toes keeping secret rhythm underneath the table.
There must have been numerous problems with the "first family," resentment and vexation among the children, especially from the oldest girl, actually a peer of her stepmother. The smaller girls were probably despondent at first, although I have never heard any details, but I know for a fact that none of them ever thought of Dolly as their own mother. The "second family" took precedence, of course, the compensation for all she had given up. Nonetheless, she toiled ceaselessly for all of Simon's offspring and was renowned in the family as the greatest cook who had ever lived because she could turn anything, including humdrum wartime rations, into delectable gourmet fare. What is more, while window shopping in town, she might pause at a distinctive window, fix her gaze on a mannequin wearing an particularly attractive dress, march home and, using no pattern, duplicate it for one of her girls. Apparently, she was consoled to her destiny and, without outward lament, did a good and proper job of it all.
In the slender gap between Simon's two families, grew the little Dora, my mother, with her straight black hair, pallid skin, and penetrating gray-blue eyes. She turned not to her stepmother but to her older sisters for affection; in fact, the five of them clung to one another in varying degrees for their entire lives. Although Dolly was competent, praiseworthy, and steady, although she had become a reassuring fixture in the kitchen with her sleeves rolled up and flour on her hands, she never came across to her stepdaughters as warm or sympathetic. My grandfather had a rarely gentle, more often tyrannical nature, and his children often quailed before his indifferent, at times bombastic authority. He considered himself a good father because he could provide for his children, but he had steeled himself against becoming overly sentimental about anything. Deep in her heart, my mother always believed her father blamed her personally for her mother's premature death.
Having hoped originally to reach America, he had always struggled, from the very first moment he had left his family in Poland. A thief had grabbed his luggage en route. Refusing at first to follow him to England, his own parents had come later and tried to adapt to the Anglican society but had returned to Poland after a relatively short, unsuccessful attempt. Soon afterward, he learned that they had been killed running from one of the many pogroms on the ever-changing borders in Eastern Europe. To avoid the sneers of polite British anti-Semites and to encourage better business, he had found it necessary to unofficially change his last name from the foreign "Posnansky" to the more acceptable "Simons."
The family had started out in a small dwelling and didn't move until my mother was around six years old, yet she never mentioned any home other than Star Cliffs, the larger, second one. The name sounds more glamorous than the house turns out to have been. Walking through the front door, one stood in a foyer containing two high-backed, red velvet chairs and an imposing grandfather clock that needed regular winding with a big key. Most of the time, however, no one entered the house through the front door or spent time in the rarely used, formal sitting room, where there was also a piano. This salon was reserved for company, such as the few synagogue ladies Dolly sometimes invited to tea on Sunday afternoons. At the time, my mother and her sisters considered it an elegant, special parlor, only realizing as adults that the room had probably been stiff, pretentious, and perhaps even tacky. The formal dining room, used mainly for doing daily homework, provided eating space only for special occasions.
TTo go in the house from the back gate, everyone passed by a tarpaper and wooden lean-to they called the wash house, which included a hand-powered agitator and wringer. Then they entered the center of Star Cliffs, its "kitchen," actually a family room adjoining a narrow scullery. The kitchen held a broad table with many chairs, a sewing machine, cupboards and shelves, a couch, two easy chairs, and a big iron coal stove with its perpetually ready kettle for tea, making it the warmest room in the house. To collect coal, someone would have to go outside to the coal shed, often returning wet and chilly. Dora's third-floor bedroom, which she shared with two sisters, was one of three in the house. For some unknown reason, perhaps an earnest appeal for her father's favor, she always came downstairs first in the morning, shivering and bundled-up in various woolen garments. This meant putting the teakettle on the heater after lighting the coal fire.
Later in the day, Dolly did the cooking and sharpened her knives, throwing scraps of fish or meat to a succession of family cats, always kept more as hardworking mouse-catchers than as pets. As each cat aged, ran away or died, it would immediately be replaced by another. The young Dora, while stroking it, drifted for long periods into her own imagination, a private, fanciful world. This kind of intellectual solace sustained her throughout her entire upbringing, including during the eight years after grammar school in which she sewed collar after collar onto endless raincoats at a soul-destroying factory job. Truly a man of his times and culture, my grandfather did not consider education a priority for girls.
At the age of fourteen, Dora was so absorbed in her own thoughts that she ran her thumb under the needle of the sewing machine and passed out cold. Such anecdotes she related to me with almost glittering eyes, with a defiant self-respect and pride, as if to tell me that while I should sympathize with her semi-orphaned status, I shouldn't pity her. Her imagination and consequent emotional survival were praiseworthy because not everyone could have exercised imagination to so great an extent. She had honed that precious skill while mesmerized by the hum of tedious piecework, and it remained her most useful ability. Always one to use every event, whether tragic or triumphant, to its fullest potential, she became at the raincoat factory a master seamstress in her own right.
Little joy ever came of her relationship with her father, but she admired his position as head of the house. Sabbath observant, he didn't smoke from sundown Friday until sundown Saturday, not an easy feat for a heavy tobacco user. He carried hard candies in his pockets to pop into his mouth as his cigarette craving intensified, so he always had a sweet to offer small children who approached him as he rested in his easy chair on Sabbath afternoon. This endeared him to several of the fifteen granddaughters he knew before he died.
Dora would always remember the day he taught her to smoke. At seventeen, she was trying to do without sugar in her tea because someone in the family had noticed her curves and teased her about putting on weight. Her father told her how much easier it would be if she took up smoking, a thoroughly agreeable habit that added to life's pleasure and relaxation. He even taught her how to inhale properly. She remembered this event fondly not because smoking enriched her life in any way -- in fact, it eventually took a major toll on her health -- but because personal attention from her father seldom came her way.
As a young woman, Dora became quite fashion-conscious. Naturally, she sewed her own dresses, and her slim figure, flat stomach, prominent clavicles and slender arms made her look good in all of them. Because Simon wouldn't let his daughters wear make-up or go dancing, Dora and her sister Anne would carry their best clothes over to the home of their eldest sister, Raye, who by then had four girls of her own. These girls, now all seasoned women, remember my mother as the most glamorous person they had ever seen. In gauzy dresses of shimmering blue and purple that highlighted her startling pale eyes and porcelain skin, she seemed like a princess, just the kind of woman all of them wanted to become.
In addition, she loved make-up, the very latest style. For a long time, she managed to hide this from her father. As she got older and supported herself, she assumed he would get over his opposition, but she had underestimated his will. He believed that the dark red nail polish would wipe off on the furniture as lipstick could, and he saw both as signs of approaching moral laxity. She began dating a non-Jewish soldier, fell in love with him, and flirted with the possibility of marrying him, but her fear of Simon's disapproval was greater than her desire for independence or spite. Once, in a heated argument over her make-up, he screamed at her, "You killed your mother, and you'll kill me too!"
He may as well have struck her full force in the face, and she reeled from his cruelty for the rest of her life. He had finally put into words what she had always feared were his honest feelings toward her. After the argument, she allowed herself more freedom than ever. She moved away from Star Cliffs, lived with her then married sister Anne in another town, and became a hairdresser's apprentice. Soon she started a shop of her own. She gave up the Christian soldier after realizing she would never fit in with his family and he would never fit in with hers, although she kept his photograph until the day of her death. Fascinating and alluring, she dated several men and finally met my father, an American GI. They were both twenty-eight years old.
I have the letter he sent his folks in New York on the night that he met my mother at a synagogue dance in Bolton. From the first moment he saw her in her green dress, he knew he would marry her. Without blinking, she told him a pack of lies: her mother had been wealthy and left her a decent inheritance, which she had used to attend college and travel all over "the continent," and her dream had always been to extend her travels by going to America. When Dad found out later that none of it was true, he never even mentioned it. He had a warm, winning smile, he came from a big Jewish family like hers, he was a good conversationalist, and he provided the best of all possible exits from England. They got married soon after meeting, the war ended, and another year went by.
The day she left for America on a ship full of war brides, looking forward to her adventure with a mixture of rapture and panic, she carried on her hip her father's only grandson, then nine months old. Simon came alone to see her off, something she hadn't expected; she had already said her good-byes to everyone. At that time, true to his word, he had already broken off forever from one of his many daughters for marrying "out." He must have known he would never see Dora again, and she felt it too because he looked so steadily into her eyes and held her hand longer than he ever had. He now brought two parting gifts.
One was a ring, a simple gold band supporting a large, flat, pear-shaped form covered with crushed diamonds. Not an outrageously expensive ring of superior quality, but not cheap either, it had been her mother's, he said. They had pawned it and reclaimed it several times, and after his first wife's death, he had kept it locked away. On the dock that day, he thought my mother was the child to have it. He also gave her a stiff envelope containing a photograph, a photograph she had never seen, the same one I just placed in an elegant frame.