As with everything else, buying boots for Reenie was not as simple as it sounded. First she had to be clean before Delia could take her into a decent shop. So she took her home to Olivia's and sat her in the tin tub. Reenie squealed with terror and delight as Delia ladled water over her.
Olivia picked up Reenie’s discarded garments one at a time, marveling at how many clothes could come off of a little girl who seemed just barely dressed--three torn lace petticoats, two pairs of unmatched stockings, a ragged cotton camisole, a sateen blouse with gaping holes, a Russian vest, a threadbare Greek fisherman’s jacket, and a red plaid skirt.
“Where do you live? How many are there in your family? What work do they do?” Olivia questioned Reenie in the same serious voice with which she spoke to grown people, to everyone.
“I forget. I cannot remember. I do not know, “ Reenie answered indifferently. She begged for more water, gasping alternately “too hot, hot, hot” or “too cold, cold, cold” when it came. Reenie, it seemed, could not even remember how many step-brothers she had, because they were never in the house all at the same time.
“See here,” Olivia took out a blank sheet of paper. “These are the people in your flat.” She began to make a column. “One, two, three, four--”
“She cannot count more than two or three.” Delia was trying to decide what color Reenie’s hair really was. Not absolutely black, more like a deep, cherry brown. “She gets too confused.”
“No one ever taught her to count?” Olivia asked.
“She cannot learn. She’s a half-breed.”
Something in Olivia's voice made Delia stop scrubbing. Surely Olivia knew what a half-breed was. “She’s one of the mixed-up ones. She said her father was Jewish, and her mother, Slav or Greek. Children like that, mixed bloods, can never learn.”
“Who said that?”
Delia didn’t know. It was just one of those things everyone seemed to agree on. That was why people should not marry strangers, they said. It was better for such children not to be born. They would only have soft bones, soft heads, weak brains for thinking. A hundred troubles pure bloods did not have “People must care for their own. You said so yourself.”
“I said so. Yes.” Olivia crumpled the paper and tossed it into the stove. She stood watching it burn, saying nothing...
Delia wrapped Reenie in a towel and began to rub her dry.
Taking her own comb from the shelf, Olivia pushed Delia aside, “Here, let me.”
Surprised and irritated, Delia watched as Olivia began to comb Reenie’s hair. Or try to. Olivia wasn’t very good at it. When Reenie twitched and pulled away, Olivia chased after her, rather than making her stay put. Delia had to seize Reenie by the shoulders and hold her in place. “It will take all night if you polka around so much,” she scolded.
“Polka?’ Olivia smiled, just a little. Then she did something she had never done before. She began to sing. Not a song really, just one of those humming lullabies that sounded the same in every tongue--Yiddish, Italian, Polish, Greek, even English.
Reenie stopped, transfixed. “My mama sang that song. That song exactly.”
Olivia ceased for a second.
“My mama, too,” Delia whispered. Reenie nodded and fell asleep.
For a few weeks it seemed as if Reenie might stay with them. Olivia bought a little cot for her to sleep on, two new outfits that fit and a complete a set of pencils and schoolbooks. She went to the head mistress at P.S. 150 and enrolled Reenie in the first grade class. But on the first warm day of spring Reenie was gone, taking her new clothes but leaving the books behind. Delia wasn’t surprised. Reenie was like those birds that came to peck at your lunch. They might come every day, but the minute you tried to make them sit on your finger, they flew away. “She will not stay in school for you any more than she would stay in the shop for me. That’s the way she is. A devil gets in her and she has to be free.”
“Yes.” Olivia sounded weary. “We all want to be free.”
Delia had plenty of time to think on this at work. There wasn’t enough to do, which was almost worse than being sweated ten hours a day. They would arrive and wait for their morning stint to be passed around. Nothing would come until ten o’clock, or sometimes, noon. If you left, you could not come back in. While you waited you did not get paid. “Why should I pay girls just to sit?” Mr. Meir asked. “This is no park.” They were free to leave, he pointed out. But when the work came, he was not going to go running through the streets to find them. It was not his fault that the deliveries were late. If they wanted to strike let them go to the railroad yards or the docks where the cloth was unloaded every day. Better yet, let them go to the mills far north of Boston where the cloth was woven and have their strike there. It was all the same to him. He didn’t care.
At every shop in the city girls sat idle by their machines. It was another plot by the bosses, the Forward said, to break the union. One more reason for a general strike. Yet no one seemed quite ready to take the first step no matter how thin their pay envelopes got.
Delia still met Leah every week at the library and pressed most of her wages into her cousin’s hand. Leah took it and put it in her pocket without bothering to count it. She only half-listened to Delia’s instructions. Get the soup bones from Kantowitz’s, but the stewing hen from the butcher on the corner of Orchard and Delancy Street. A three-cent bag of onions should last all week. Heinemann's would sell you two loaves of bread for the price of one if you got there five minutes before they closed. Not a minute earlier, though.
Yes, yes, Leah nodded. She kept her eyes on her drawing, her hand moving swiftly over the paper. A face took shape. A tree. She was more than old enough to do the shopping, but couldn’t seem to remember what to buy. Delia wondered if she just bought whatever came in a pretty wrapper or fancy box. Leah’s colored pencils were worn to nubs. Delia had no money for drawing things now and there was no mention of scholarships or college.
How was it at home, Delia asked anxiously? How was Aunt Helga? Was there enough work? Yes, Leah nodded again. Well, she thought so. She helped. And Gertie could sew a little now, too, when she put her mind to it. Her mama was better. Some days. Other days she just cried.
Delia thought of her own mother, caring for the three children and Helga, too. Doing the all cooking, the cleaning, and the endless sewing.
Ben had been home, Leah brightened. He had taken them all out for soda pop and a show at the Biograph and he had left a whole pile of money behind. But now that was almost gone.
Delia flushed with shame at the idea that Ben should be doing more for her family than she did. “Tell my mama,” she reached into her pocket for another twenty cents, “tell her if she needs more, I have it.”
Her family needed her. She had put off going back home as long as she possibly could. Now she knew she had to. And where else could she go now that Olivia was leaving?
That news had been dropped on her like a flat-iron one rainy night when they were both in the kitchen fixing a cold supper of black bread with pickles and cheese. Olivia was going home, she told Delia. Home. That’s the word she used. Not “abroad,” just home. And the man who owned the house had decided to sell at the end of the month.
“So you see, you cannot stay here,” Olivia spoke rapidly, nervously. “I will ask around for a place. I’m sure one of my friends could put you up.”
“I am returning home too,” Delia replied stiffly. Then she lost her composure and burst out in frustration. “How can you leave now? Just when we need you most? We need all those who speak for the general strike? You talk and talk about the strike. But when finally it happens you won’t be here.”
“Let them have it without me then.”
“It means nothing to you?”
“It means everything. I’ve worked for it for years. But I want to see my children and the chance may not come again.”
“Your... what...?” Olivia? Children? Olivia a mama? Impossible. Delia would have known it. You knew who was a mama and who wasn’t just by looking. It was in the way a woman dressed, spoke, laughed, the expression on her face, the way she paused before eating to make sure others had enough. Bessie was a mama, and her own mother was one with every inch of her being. Rachel would be soon, even if a stylish one. But Olivia? “Your ...children?”
“Is it so hard to believe?” Olivia asked softly. “My family sent me to the university. They were so proud of me.” She put the teapot on to boil. Too full. The water would splatter all over the stove. “But they didn’t know I would fall in love with another student. An anarchist. And a Jew. After we married, his family would not speak to us and neither would mine. But we didn’t care. We had the life we dreamed of. The life of rebels with our comrades, our friends. We made revolution.” She began to prepare the tea, fussing with the cups, measuring and re-measuring spoonfuls of tea leaves as if she couldn’t remember how. “And we made babies. Then he became sick. The children too. I begged my mother to send money, to send a doctor for the sake of the children. She sent a priest. A priest! She would send a doctor only if my husband was baptized. As if he would ever consent to such a thing. Or I. After he died I had nothing. Not a lira, sou or cent. Finally my mother agreed to help. She would give me some money if I would let her take the children for a time. I would go to America and send for them, I told her. That’s why I took this house. That was many years ago. They never came.”
“Why didn’t you go back for them?”
“I have. Twice. But when I arrive, my mother moves them to another place. She says they will be raised in the church. The church again! And the courts there, the lawyers, say the same. They think I am unfit to care for my own children. Because of my politics, they say, because I married a man outside my own faith, because I refuse to stay home all day like a lady. But last month my cousin wrote and said my mother was going to bring my children to Geneva for a holiday. I can see them there as long as my mother does not know. My cousin is a kind woman. She will arrange it. But I will have to hide my presence from my mother like a thief. Always, my mother is against me,” Olivia finished bitterly.
“Children?” Delia kept looking at Olivia. She simply couldn’t see little ones clinging to Olivia's skirts, grabbing at her with sticky hands, crying for a kiss. A hundred questions bubbled up. How many? Boys or girls or both? What were their ages? Their names? Did they go to school?
“I will show you.” Olivia's voice softened. She went to her room and came out with a picture, one of those small visiting card size photographs that people sent across the ocean for a dime. “See?” Olivia held it out. Delia took the picture carefully. It showed two children, a small boy about three sitting on a plush chair while a girl a year or two older leaned on the arm. The boy was fair. The girl had thick, dark hair straining loose from a white bow-ribbon. It was difficult to see what their faces looked like because both wore tiny eyeglasses with smoked lenses. Weak eyes. Delia’s heart went out to Olivia. A mother whose children had weak eyes would never stop worrying about them no matter how far away she might be. For an instant she wondered if it was because they were half-breeds. But she would never say that. Never would she use that word again. They were the children of her friend, the woman who had opened her door to her when she had no place else to go. She would say nothing against them. Or any others like them. “They are fine children.” She handed the picture back.
Olivia gazed at it. “It was taken a long time ago. They will not know me now.”
“Of course they will know you. You are their mama.” How could a child forget her own mama? “Why if my mama wanted to see me--” What was she about to say? That she would run barefoot through the snow all the way to Cherry Street just to throw herself into her mama’s arms?
“I wish my mother wanted to see me.” Olivia tucked the picture away in her pocket “But she never will. She says I am an evil influence. She calls me a demon.”
A demon? Delia had heard that word before. “My mama also,” she said. She’d walk into the flat, into her mother’s outstretched arms. They’d weep all over one another. And then....and then in ten minutes they’d be fighting again. No matter how they tried they could not speak peacefully.
“Will you go back home, though?” Olivia asked.
“I know I should. But am used to being on my own. I like being free.”
Olivia nodded but didn’t say anything.
Delia fell silent too. Here we sit, she thought, two female demons drinking our tea. She did not feel she was a demon, and she certainly did not consider Olivia one. But their mamas had called them so. And as far as she knew the rest of the world would too, all because they wanted to be free.
Before she left, Olivia gave Delia a present. “It’s not much,” she apologized as Delia undid the tiny gold latch of small, narrow black case. Inside, nestled on purple silk, was a gold-tipped fountain pen. For while Delia couldn’t speak. She wasn’t used to receiving gifts, and certainly never expected this. She picked it up, turning it slowly this way and that, not as if she were about to write with it, but the way she might examine a precious jewel or the feather of some strange bird.
“It’s Waterman’s latest self-regulating model with free-flowing ink.” Olivia explained and showed her how to unscrew the top half and refill it with a siphon from a bottle of special ink.
Delia nodded. “My papa had one,” she said. “Not so modern, but still fine.” Her papa’s fountain pen had been lost in the jumble of things on the street after the rent strike. She had almost forgotten about it, she realized with a pang. All she had left of her papa and it was gone. Now, in a way, she had it back again.
“A sheynem danke,” she said. “That is our word for grazie.”
“If you want to thank-me you must write something with it,” Olivia replied.
The pen seemed heavier in Delia’s fingers. What could be worthy of such a pen? Certainly not any ordinary letter. “I will write to you about the general strike,” she told Olivia. “When we finally walk-out, all the girls in all the factories on the East Side together. I will write to you if you cannot be there.”
“Then I will be expecting your letter.” Outside a hired motorcar pulled up to take Olivia to her steamship. She embraced Delia swiftly. “Remember, no one wants to be alone, but everyone want to be free. Sometimes you have to choose.” Then she was gone.
Delia sat for a while by the window. She could stay here until the end of the month. And then? “Nu?” She spoke to the empty house. She knew what it was like to be alone, but she had no idea if she would ever really know what it was like to feel free.
Like many Americans I am the descendant of immigrants. I have always been fascinated by their stories. I hope you enjoy reading about Delia and her adventures growing up on the Lower East Side. If you want to learn more about the historical background, please take a look at the About and Resources sections. If you want to learn more about my other books for children and young adults visit my website.
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