When I was in first grade Miss Charlton (whom we called Charlie because of her mustache) marched us into the auditorium to learn “My Country ‘Tis of Thee.” She sat down at the piano and led us through the song word by word, playing the piano with one hand and directing us with the other. When we came to the phrase “Land where my father died,” I couldn’t figure out how they all knew. At home my father’s death was this big secret. There wasn’t even a photograph of him anywhere, as if a picture could suddenly whisper the truth. Since all the other kids had fathers I reasoned it must be my father who died on the land they were singing about.
He vanished without a trace of the ordinary clutter and details of a life, leaving not a shadow nor footprint. There were no letters or insurance papers or tax receipts to find. Not a watch or drivers’ license or birth certificate or deed to a house. No marriage license or diploma. No fading photograph that he had carried, maybe of me. Not a wedding portrait or snapshot at the beach. It was as if during the 29 years of his life on earth he was already a ghost.
My mother was as adamantly tight-lipped about my father as she was about everything else in her life. A walking, seething repository of secrets, she was willfully mute about her childhood, her husband, her marriage, and the secrets of her long widowhood.
So I embarked on a search not only for a father I never knew, but for my mother, who turned out to be even more of a mystery.
Although she never spoke of her 12 years in an orphanage, I learned of its horrors from reading Inside Looking Out; The Cleveland Jewish Orphan Asylum From 1868 to 1924 by Gary Edward Polster. The Rise And Fall Of The Cleveland Mafia by Rick Porrello gave me details of my father’s bootlegging activities, including events, dates, places and names. I read the family history my brother, Kenny, wrote after interviewing our relatives, as well as the lengthy newspaper accounts of our father’s murder.
Kenny, old enough to remember him first-hand, told me of his charm, violent temper and generosity. My mother’s sister talked to me about their marriage; a cousin remembered the night he and Uncle Addie were killed. Another aunt related details of the funeral; an uncle told me stories about his vitality and lust and ambition. And they all knew who his killer was.
I was given a few pictures. In one, my father is a dark-eyed child on a tricycle. Another shows a muscular youth standing with his brother, Marvin, in front of a horse and delivery wagon from the family bakery. The picture is slightly out of focus, his grin blurred, but you can see his physical strength and his readiness to use it. In another he stands serenely in a handsome tan suit looking for all the world like a gentleman of banking or the law. His lips are thick and sensual, his eyes deep set. He is a beautiful young man.
He wears this same tan suit on a date with my mother. It is probably 1915 or 1916. In my family it does not seem strange that I don’t know when my parents met, or even the month and year of their marriage. I come to this estimate by counting backwards from my brother’s birth. My father is 20 in 1915 (I know this from the date inscribed on his tombstone), my mother,18. I do know -- or think I know -- that they met at the Elysium, an indoor ice skating rink located in Cleveland at the corner of Euclid Avenue and 107th St.
He dresses carefully for his date. The tan suit and vest, a high stiff collar, a hat. His tie is silk, his wingtips gleam. He looks in the mirror and tilts his skimmer to a jaunty angle, tucks his gold watch in his waistcoat pocket, arranges the chain, and after another look in the glass pounds down the stairs.
When he arrives at my mother’s, the neighbors peek through their curtains at his Winston, and five or six children gather around and touch its gleaming black surface. He gets out of the car, reaches in his pocket and gives each of them a dime. He squeezes the horn, summoning my mother. He squeezes it again. He leans against the door, jiggling his leg. His energy crackles the air. It makes passersby look up and shopkeepers stare and whisper. He is a magnetic field. He paces up and down the sidewalk. He shoos the children away who are now climbing all over the automobile. Suddenly he starts pounding urgently on my mother’s door as if his energy will implode if he doesn’t expend it on something, somewhere. He burns. He makes you hot. In my dreams I see him emanating a glow, wired by his own power.
Finally my mother comes out. He takes her arm and almost runs with her to the car. She smells of soap and Coty’s powder from its flowered box. She is wearing her sister Mabel’s good blue dress and her mother’s feathered hat. When Mabel and Anna find out, there will be hell to pay, but now my mother is smiling. Aware of the neighbors’ stares, she proudly lets herself be handed into the splendid automobile by Mr. Lou Rosen.
Did this -- and what follows -- really happen the way I have written it? Did everyone do what I say they did -- think these thoughts and speak these words? I believe so. But It doesn’t really matter, not to me, because I have absorbed so many reports and whispers and been told so many confessions and recollections for so long that they have become part of me and are as fixed as the moon.
I have a blurred mental image of my mother coming home from my daddy’s funeral. She is wearing a veiled black hat that scares me. I am two years old and had been left at home, put to bed for my nap by a big colored lady. But I can’t sleep. The house feels too quiet. Something big is wrong. I stand up in my crib and scream. No one comes.
Finally I am taken downstairs. Grown-ups in dark clothes are standing around whispering. There is the cloying smell of sweet pastries, the sound of china; ladies in aprons are busy in the kitchen. One of them gives me a cookie. She is crying. I have never seen a grown-up cry before and I start to wail. A man picks me up; his face feels scratchy. I scramble down and look for my mother.
I see her sitting in a big chair and run to her. She pulls me onto her lap. I tug at the black veil knocking off her hat but, still, I cannot stop crying. “Babette, honey, shh, don’t cry, it’s all right,” she murmurs. I feel her heart pound through my dress and, weeping, hang onto her until someone wipes my runny nose and pulls me away.
My mother sits quietly in the big chair listening to the noises of the kitchen and the murmur of the mourners’ voices. Hearing a piercing screech she thinks it came from her own mouth. But no one turns to her and she realizes it was a screaming tea kettle. She stares at the mourners in their dark clothes and sorrowful faces as they move about the dining room table laden with platters of herring, smoked whitefish, smoked salmon, cream cheese, hard-boiled eggs, bagels and Kaiser rolls. Home- made sponge cake, macaroons and fig newtons, baked by the ladies in the kitchen that morning while her husband was being buried.
Upstairs, my daddy’s suits hang limply with their empty sleeves, neatly arranged by color and season, the dark blues and grays giving way along the rack to the summer creams and whites. Shallow drawers hold rows of jeweled cuff links, a rainbow of ties stretches along a wall, and dozens of stiff-collared silk shirts hang neatly in whites and pastels.
Now the mourners are filling the large, proud living room after first washing their hands from the pitcher on the front stoop. (Someone had set up the ancient Jewish funeral ritual as if this were a benign death and you could wash off the wreckage.) My mother looks around for my brother, a tow-headed blue-eyed boy of six, but he has already escaped into the backyard our daddy had equipped with swings, jungle gyms, even a child-sized car. Peering through the window she sees him riding his car on the hard, gray snow, his correct little tie off and already a rip in the scratchy suit jacket bought especially for his father’s funeral.
Earlier, at the burial, he had dutifully thrown a small handful of dirt into the freshly dug grave as the rabbi muttered the Kaddish. I see him there in the shimmer of a dream and imagine heat rays emanating from the open grave like the disturbed air of hell. Suddenly my mother’s knees buckle under her. The funeral director with his neat, black suit and blank eyes reaches out and steadies her with the expressionless efficiency of his profession, corpses and collapsing widows as unremarkable to him as an accountant’s pencil and adding machine. Her dizziness is actually due to the pill given her by a Dr. Magio who is said to be kept on a retainer for the time a bullet or two has to be discretely removed, and who was called when my mother was unable to stop screaming. She feels shame in her near-collapse and extravagant sorrow -- mixed as it is with a curious and confusing measure of relief that Lou Rosen’s vitality and violence are now subdued six feet under. She is only 27 after all, her flesh still young, her thighs still slender and surely not meant never to open to a man again.
But if she imagines freedom and options with a pounding heart she learns soon enough that the dead do not leave. Even without the lingering scent of his aftershave, the damp towel across the bed, the diamond stick pin and gold cuff links on the bedside table, Lou is an ongoing gauzy presence, everywhere and nowhere, hovering over her, over all of us.
Now, sitting in the living room, my mother watches a group of three men as they enter her house and hang up their coats and fedoras on the racks provided by the Berkowitz Funeral Home. She knows that the big man, the one with the drooping eyelids and heavy glasses, ordered her husband’s murder--she wonders if the two men with him were the actual killers. She also knows that the hundreds of white carnations and roses covering his casket were sent by their polite murdering hands. But she is not afraid; she has been a bootlegger’s wife long enough to know that as long as they keep their silence widows and children are sacrosanct. She has been a bootlegger’s wife long enough to understand the code; no one will harm her unless, of course, she breaks it and reveals his name, which she knows to be Joe Lonardo, the Cleveland Mafia boss who is now offering his clean hand to her in solemn-faced sympathy. She shakes his hand and feels her stomach rise to her throat. She is afraid she will vomit on his wingtips.
The rabbi in his black suit and beard and woeful expression is standing with Marvin, brother of the deceased. Marvin has thick black hair that looks windblown, or mussed from making love. Talking to the rabbi, gesturing with his hands, he is smiling as if he’s at a wake with believers of an afterlife, even for Lou Rosen. The rabbi is eating a wedge of sponge cake. He wipes his mouth with a dinky embroidered napkin. There are crumbs in his beard. He puts his empty plate down on the grand piano, straightens his yarmulke, and crosses the room to my mother. He leans over and kisses her on the cheek; she feels his beard brush her face and has an impulse to grab hold of it. She feels like laughing and has to duck her head and hold her handkerchief to her mouth.
“Mrs. Rosen--Are you all right?” the rabbi asks. His voice is deep, concerned.
She nods. She even smiles. She wonders if she is going crazy. Although the rabbi is older than she by at least a decade, she thinks he is too young to have anything to say to her. She wants him to go away, to leave her alone. But he sits down in a chair at her side, looks into her eyes and speaks. What? What did he say? She is too preoccupied to hear. She wants to ask him if her husband killed anyone before he was killed; if God had punished him, an eye for an eye. She wants to ask him if a bootlegger can get into heaven. Or a bootlegger’s wife, for that matter. She wants to ask him if there is a heaven. She wants to ask him if there is a God. Foolish woman! Not a question for a rabbi. But the truth is she receives little comfort from his respectful attendance or his pieties or from the funeral service or the Kaddish her son, a child of six, had dutifully repeated in a clear child’s voice at graveside, and has no hope of heavenly intervention into the life she has already found to be absurd. Sitting there, receiving condolences, she feels that God is unaware of her small mistaken existence and that it would be dangerous to get the attention of such a capricious deity who maybe has it in for orphan girls who get mixed up with gangsters. So she says nothing as the rabbi rises to leave, lowering her eyes and retreating into the hushed respect reserved for the newly widowed.
She notices her mother sitting across the room. When did she come in? Anna Wolf (Wolf being her second husband, now dead, who was said to have given her the syphilis that eventually killed her) is sitting on the couch with her purse on her knees. She has good bones, the same good bones as my mother, her face is sculptured like an aristocrat’s, and with her haughty bearing, could have been reincarnated from a former blue-blooded life. She is daintily eating a cookie with her pinky finger held aloft, sipping from her cup as if she were at a tea party. Now she puts the cup down on the coffee table, opens her purse, retrieves a mirror and tube of lipstick, and carefully applies it to her thin mouth with her reddened arthritic fingers. I do not like the feel of my grandmother’s dry rough hands on my skin.
Anna’s first husband was Jacob Smith, the name changed from Schmitko when he emigrated to
Cleveland from . But his new Americanized name and youth, his grand handlebar mustache and his young wife couldn’t protect him from the tuberculosis epidemic -- known in those days as consumption. He died at the age of thirty after a long illness leaving Anna with nothing but four children, a meager grocery store, and her own cold heart. Poland
Tending to her few customers, she left her small daughters to the streets of the
Scovil Avenue neighborhood. That is, until the day a neighbor paid a visit to the authorities and reported Anna Smith’s appalling neglect of her three little girls, who, dirty and hungry, had been running wild in the neighborhood for weeks, months. My mother, , was 3; her sisters, Lillian and Mabel, 5 and 7. Florence
Soon after, a high-bosomed woman and a man with a walrus mustache and a watch chain showed up at Anna’s grocery store. She led them upstairs to her rooms, telling her daughters to wait outside. They sat down obediently on the stoop in their grimy, torn dresses. A peddler passed, rattling his cart filled with pots and pans. It was July, and the air smelled of garbage, urine and the cabbage from someone’s kitchen. A baby was crying overhead and a woman leaned out of her window calling to her son, who was nowhere in sight. After awhile, the man emerged folding papers into his breast pocket. He nodded to the woman waiting on the stoop with the children and one at a time she lifted the three ragged girls into the wagon. (Della, too young at six months to be taken, was left upstairs with Anna.)
, my mother, started to scream as if she was the only one who understood what was happening, setting off her sisters. The woman reached in her bag and gave each weeping child a small lollipop. Even though their mother had a grocery store and a glass jar of penny candy stood on the dusty shelf, they were never given any, and they stopped crying, tore off the wrapper and began sucking greedily. The man and woman climbed into the wagon as the neighbors stared through their windows; the man jiggled the horse’s reins, and it disappeared, rattling down the cobblestone street. Florence
In my sentimental imagination I picture Anna running after the horse and wagon, arms outstretched, tears streaming down her face, crying, My babies! My babies! Like in a silent movie. Like Charlie Chaplin and Jackie Coogan in The Kid. But I know better. What I know of Anna is that she turned away to wait on a customer. Or simply stood watching them leave from her window.
When they arrived at the Jewish Orphan Asylum on
Woodland Avenue and 55th street, a smell of rot rose from the earth. The sisters stared at the high iron-spiked fence that surrounded the large buildings, the barred windows and the ragged children watching them from the playground. Sobbing in fear, they eyed still another frightening stranger come toward them on this bewildering morning. Later they would learn that he was Dr. Sam Wolfenstein, the director, whom they would come to regard with fear and awe as a surrogate for God himself, with his heavy beard and bushy eyebrows, weekly sermons, strict discipline and constant admonitions about the moral life.
“Now, now,” he said, lifting my mother, the smallest, out of the wagon. “You’ll have to stop that crying.”
But she didn’t. She was three years old but she knew that something very bad was happening; the disappearance of her mother, her lollipop and her freedom all tangled together into a confusing sense of terrifying loss. She couldn’t stop crying. She could not.
“Hush!” he said, louder.
But his shouts only brought forth a fresh cascade of screams.
“Stop it! This minute!” he shouted, unused to being disobeyed by his orphans. He held her small, dirty, screaming self at arms-length like a bad-smelling, noisy, squirming chicken and handed her to the woman from the wagon. As she took their screaming baby sister away, Mabel and Lill watched wide-eyed, their terror and confusion striking them mute.
The sisters were then separated into their respective age groups among the other 500 “inmates” (as they were called in their lives behind bars) enduring yet another loss--this time of each other.
My mother was taken to a large damp room in the basement (infested, like the orphanage’s other eighteenth-century buildings, with huge rats, lice and bedbugs). Staring with alarm at the large pool of green water with two ladders leading down into it, she was stripped and examined for lice. The probing of her head and body by yet another stranger set her off again into a rejuvenated fit of wailing until she was dragged into the tub and shocked into silence by the scalding water. After being scrubbed by one of the older girls, her hair was cut off--setting off a lifelong preoccupation with her hair. Over the years, following the fashion of the day, it was bobbed, upswept, permed, straightened, marcelled, streaked, and layered.
Scrubbed, de-liced, and shorn, exhausted and subdued, she was now put into thick, gray undergarments with long legs that itched winter and summer. Black stockings went on next, then a red flannel underskirt and finally a dress of wool that reached the ankles. Over that went a blue striped apron. Shoes were made of thick leather that laced up over the ankles. After being dressed she was assigned a number that was sewn on her uniform and by which she was henceforth known.
She was always hungry. While doing her dawn-to-dusk-chores, during her hours of Hebrew and Bible study, she was hungry. Attending classes in German, English and mathematics, history, social studies and geography, penmanship and spelling, she was hungry. Sitting among the five-hundred other orphans at long wooden tables of ten in enforced silence, there was never enough to eat, and for every hour of each and every day, for the next twelve years, she was hungry.
But she was also smart, every year performing academically at the top of her class. And at the age of fifteen, on a lovely June afternoon in 1912, my mother graduated valedictorian from the Jewish Orphan Home.
After the ceremonies, her Hebrew teacher, Mrs. Adler, climbed the stairs to her dorm where my mother was packing her few belongings. “You’re to go to the office,” she told her.
Clutching her valedictorian medal, she ran downstairs. Mrs. Goldstein, the secretary, was standing in the administration office with a woman
had never seen before. Florence
“This is Anna Smith,” Mrs. Goldstein said. “She is your mother.”
stared at the stranger standing there in a brown coat and feather-trimmed hat. Anna Smith had never visited her daughters. Not once. Not once in 12 years Florence
But my mother went home with Anna -- where else could she go? Her older sisters, Mabel and Lill, had preceded her, and their small apartment was so crowded the last one home had to sleep on the floor and the second one up in the morning got the last of the two pairs of silk stockings they owned among them.