Sarah Priestman and Marisa Bevington

Marisa Bevington
Inspiration piece

By Sarah Priestman

She’d waited before. Waited outside shul for her father, who’d refused to be rushed since racing from his burning Lithuanian village. Waited in the hall as her parents whispered with the yentl. Waited for her husband to slurp the last of his soup so she could kiss her two boys good night and carry the family’s supper dishes down the stairs to a communal pump and the comfort of gossip, the courtyard enclosure a haven from New York’s bitter winds.

Waited for miracles for these sons, her prayers unheeded that TB summer of 1900, the silence of so many mothers, so much grief, replacing gossip at that same well. They were both buried across the river in Brooklyn, too far to visit. Soon, Ruth waited for the third child, her growing belly a source of envy at the pump: Miriam, rosy cheeked, quick to learn. This prayer, answered.

Ten years passed. Widowed, Miriam now teacher’s pet, they left Mott Street to cross another river, where she took work as a housekeeper with a Teaneck family. They are not from Lithuania, Ruth is warned, but Germany, though Ruth doesn’t know the difference. The husband is a lawyer; the wife, it is explained, active with Sisterhood at the Temple.

Now Ruth waited for Miriam, invited to join the lessons with lawyer’s children. Ruth finishes the household dishes as she waits, leaning against the deep sink, indoors, her hands in water warmed on a stove. In the morning, her fingertips snap against the hot iron used on the husband’s collars, dab polish on the wife’s black boots, worn to meetings, outside the house.

She waited to find a yentl, knowing the poor choice Miriam would make, as what man wanted a smart wife, and then sat, flabbergasted, as the lawyer told her of Douglass College, where his daughter will attend classes while living in a women’s boarding house. With Ruth’s permission, they will pay Miriam’s tuition, and she can share a room with their daughter, Deborah – they have grown to be close as sisters, he reminds Ruth. She is stunned. Her boys were taken from her, then her husband, all by disease, something she understood. What is taking her girl?

Again Ruth waits for Miriam, who returns home for Rosh Hashanah, Hanukah, Yom Kipper, the husband traveling to New Brunswick to escort them on the train each way. She listens as her daughter chatters about the classes. Maybe she will be a teacher, Miriam says, more animated than ever, or writer. Ruth is horrified. No one will marry such a lively girl. She holds her tongue, waiting for this insanity to pass.

In June of 1922, Ruth climbs into the family’s Roadster for college graduation ceremonies, expecting Miriam to return to the cot next to her mother’s in the room behind the kitchen. She has almost become friends with the husband and wife. Her patience with their younger children, whom she has grown to adore, and her steadiness behind the scenes has cultivated a mutual fondness among them all, but she is still household staff. She knows not to wait for that to change.

Miriam introduces her to the landlady, Mrs. Schwartz. Ruth studies the dining room, six chairs stationed around the table. Sweaters hang from five hooks near the door. Five boxes line a slim foyer table, collecting mail for each boarder. She peeks into the kitchen, noticing a faucet installed above the deep sink.

Miriam and Deborah make introductions, revealing an affection for Mrs. Schwartz. The landlady is cordial with the adults, but shares something special with the girls. Ruth is intrigued, seeing in Mrs. Schwartz a warmth fueled by the comings-and-goings of these young people, a connection with others that Ruth cannot remember since those evenings of gossip at the pump, her young sons safely in bed.

Miriam tells Ruth about the job she has been offered as a secretary at the Rutgers Law School, which, with the boys all home from the war, is growing. She will still live in Mrs. Schwartz’s house, but it won’t be the same. Mrs. Schwartz is selling the house, moving into her son’s in the next town, once she can find a new owner.

Ruth stares out at endless green fields as the Roadster crosses New Jersey back to Teaneck. Days later she asks the husband for a meeting, bringing a pad of paper and pencil to the dining room table where they sit, once she has arranged the black tea, lemon slices, tiny cakes. He is initially curious as she speaks, then pensive, then exuberant.

Yes, a woman can own property in America, he explains, appeasing her concerns. The law was passed in 1848, the same time pogroms raged through her father’s country. He will loan her the money for what he calls a “down payment,” and she will send him a check – he paused here, letting her know that Miriam can help her with checks – to clear her debt.

His wife will miss her, he concludes, but this is good. He repeats himself: “This is good, this is good.” The three of them will take the Roadster back to New Brunswick, he declares, always excited for a reason to drive the car, so Ruth can meet with Mrs. Schwartz. He will serve as Ruth’s lawyer.

The wife gives Ruth an Edwardian-style hat for the meeting. It is slightly out of style, adorned with cabbage roses, coiled ribbon streamers, blue tulle.

Ruth wears it obediently, sitting ramrod at the table while lawyers trade papers, the husband counseling her where to sign, Mrs. Schwartz offers a new fountain pen when Ruth’s smears on the paper. She waits for the moment when the house is hers. She knows how to be resolute more than to be happy, but that will come. She glances up, as if seeing through the office walls, and stares into a future with its promise of Miriam, the voices of young people, her name on this paper, the waiting that thing in her past.



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One Comment

  1. Posted December 21, 2020 at 5:58 am | #

    What a lovely story. Full of hope and promise and the real rhythm of changing generations.

    And the painter… brilliant