The Saga of Bessie

Once arrived in New York City all this moves swiftly forward, almost as if it never happened. In the Forsyth Street tenement, she is again the wife-mother-balabuster. Long-limbed and slender, with the grace and elegance to be inherited only by her daughter Celia, she reigns over her ghetto household.

One pregnancy follows another, Celia, Birdie, and Ester Devorah begins to fail. Each new birth means more work for Bashaleh, her eldest daughter, right-hand, the ‘little-mother.’ Teenaged Bessie finds refuge only in the corner of the rooftop where she goes to hand out to dry the linens she has boiled, scrubbed, rinsed and wrung. God forbid it should rain before the clothes dried-they’d need to be taken down wet, no place to store them in the crowded flat, no spare clothing to wear until they eventually dried. Just the same, with none to see her but her guilt-ridden mother, Bessie, now fourteen or fifteen, weeps for her lost youth.

In childbed again at 36, Esther Devorah, giving birth to her last baby, breathes her last, victim, like so many of her sisterhood, of childbed fever breathes her last. What of the new baby? Stillborn? Or just put out for adoption? Who knows: a dead secret? Birdie is barely two, Celia four, Pauline 7, Meyer 9, Morris 12, Bessie 16, Aaron-Lieb is 18 and just married.

Years and years before I heard of Oedipus and Freud, it seems to me that even then I listened in a kind of shocked awareness to Mama’s account of the way she literally stepped into the void left by her mother’s death. Zaida went about his business leaving Bashaleh at home to cart the coal, heat the water, scrub the clothes and hang them on the roof to dry as usual; but now she also cared for and coddled the little ones, marketing daily, scrubbing floors, polishing shoes, koshering meat, baking and cooking and playing mother, likely fancying herself wife as well. She proudly made her mother’s little specialties, “Suck” she called it, a special fruit syrup to go with the evening tea. Innocently, earnestly, she really believed she filled her father’s every need. For six months. And then…

A voice calls out one morning through the tiny tenement flat. “Send her in here. Let her bring me my kava.” Shh, shh, she’s only a girl.” “Tell her to BRING IT HERE… NOW. THIS MINUTE,” hollered the classical stepmother, ugly and cruel. The teenager enters the “bridal suite.” Mystified, mortified to find the hideous stranger in her father’s bed, she carries the coffee to her, wanting only to dash it into the leering, ugly face. The battle lines were drawn: Mama Basha versus the Meema: Basha deposed by her own beloved father.

Smart as she was, Bessie never solved the riddle of this betrayal. She, Basha, had had everything in such control, why was it not enough for wonderful, gentle, learned papa? He had been so much in love with her sainted, beautiful, delicate mother, how could he so soon replace her with this ugly, hump-backed, pock-faced creature? Whore! Koorvah! screamed the Meema, and within a month after her marriage, Meema booted Bessie out of the house.

2 thoughts on “The Saga of Bessie

  1. Susan Volk

    Sam Rubel of Rubel Ice and Coal was my great uncle on the Shapiro side of the family. His daughter, Honora, was my favorite aunt.

    Contrary to your description of my grandmother, Rose Posner, as being cold, she was an amazingly warm, caring and loving grandmother. She taught me how to bake when I was six years old, and gave me all of my great grandfather’s recipes. I use them to this day. When I was 4 years old, I expressed the desire to fly in a plane. So, my grandparents took me to LaGuardia airport and flew me to Providence to visit Aunt Marion and Uncle Alan Sydney for the day. When I was 8 years old, Grandpa Max and Grandma Rose took me on a vacation to California for 3 weeks. They took me to Lake Tahoe so I could learn how to snow ski and then to Los Angeles and on to Disneyland. My grandfather was wheelchair bound by that time, but he never let that interfere with our relationship and memorable outings. Later on, they both were extremely supportive of my career choice in the arts and helped me in talking my parents into letting me attend the University of Pennsylvania for a masters program in Material Culture. I still remember my vacations and time spent with my loving grandparents as if it were yesterday. My husband, Jeff Volk, loved spending time with my warm, caring and loving grandparents. We spent many vacations with my grandparents at their Palm Springs home and have amazing memories to pass on to our daughter.

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  2. Susan Volk

    I would like to introduce myself. I am Max and Rose Posner’s eldest grand-daughter. I am also Samuel Rubel’s, of Rubel Ice and Coal, grand-neice (In the beginning of your post, Rubel Ice and Coal was mentioned in a ditty about someone robbing my ancestors’ business).

    In defense of my grandparents, Rose and Max Posner were two of the kindest, loving, charitable and generous people to ever inhabit this earth. I have many fond memories of my grandparents from my earliest recollections commencing at the age of two years old. The other fact that was left out of your recollections of Bessie Posner and her relationship with her son, Max, was that my grandfather supported Bessie and many other Posner family members financially his entire life.

    As a young girl, and right on through the early years of my marriage, I spent many weekends at my grandparents’ home. Even though my grandfather was wheelchair bound and bedridden by his Parkinsons disease, he never let it stop him from interacting with and taking his grandchildren on outings…trips to the Bronx Zoo, annual trips to Ringling Brothers Circus and to the Macy’s board room to watch the Macy’s Thanksgiving day parade with the Chairman, outings to see every Broadway musical and all of Elliot Feld’s new ballet productions. And of course, my grandmother was right there by his side enabling and encouraging him to do all of these activities.

    At a very young age, during my sleepovers at my grandparents home, my grandmother would bake and teach me all of the recipes her father handed down from his bakery in Brooklyn. It was a time for us to bond and talk about life.

    As the eldest grandchild, my grandparents often took me with them on their travels, and trips to visit Aunt Marion and Uncle Alan Sydney in Providence. I remember when I was four, I expressed the desire to fly on a plane. So, Rose and Max called my Aunt Marion and flew me to Providence for the day so I could experience a flight on an airplane! When I was eight, my grandparents took me to California for 3 weeks to visit my Grandma Rose’s two sisters and my California cousins. During that trip, we went to Lake Tahoe and Grandma Rose enrolled me in ski school at Heavenly Valley so that I could realize my dream of learning how to ski. Even though my grandfather was in a wheelchair at that point, we still went to Disneyland so I could meet my hero, Mickey Mouse.

    My grandparents were great role models for me. They valued family, education and charity to others. They were the warmest, most supportive people I knew and were instrumental in helping me achieve my life’s goals.

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