“Mama!” Delia charged into the flat waving the Forward over her head. “Mama!”
Her mother was holding a newspaper too, rolled up lengthwise to light the cooking fire. “You think your mother can’t read? This is what you do and tell the world about it.” Mama shook the paper and made a flame leap. “Playing in the park with American children while your own little cousins sit here in the dust because no one has time to take them out for a breath of air.”
“It was only a letter.” Delia stopped short. Only a letter, she thought, like the lemon ice was only a treat.
Her mother jerked her chin towards Helga to indicate that Delia should lower her voice. Helga sat by the window, a shirt in her lap, her hands idle. Since the baby died Helga had spent whole days sitting and looking at nothing. You could argue right over her head and she wouldn’t blink.
“Only a letter!” Delia didn’t care if Helga heard. “Why do you make such a big thing of it?” Ever since the lockout Mama always seemed ready to scold her over any little thing. No matter what she did or said, they could not get along.
“One letter!” She stormed into the bedroom and bumped smack into her older cousin Ben who was smoothing his hair in front of the little mirror propped atop the dresser.
“That’s my mirror,” she said. She’d bought it last month from a secondhand stall. It was barely scratched.
He didn’t answer. Ben came home so seldom he seemed to grow at least an inch between visits. He finished buttoning his shirt. It had tucks down the front and looked brand new.
“And it’s my bedroom,” she added. Which was true even though she had to share it with Leah, Gertie, and Sid. She had no idea what Ben did these days to earn his money. He never carried his old shoeshine kit anymore. He came and went as he pleased. No one ever asked him to wash a dish or sew a single stitch, she thought angrily.
Sid and Gertie sat on the edge of the bed, staring at Ben, their cheeks bulging with candy. Whenever Ben came home he brought sacks of sweets and sometimes cheap wooden toys--marching soldiers or dancing bears on a string. So now they ran to meet him the way they used to run to her...
She waited for Ben to leave so she could change into her old blue smock before dinner. When he showed no signs of going, she simply moved around to the other side of the bed where there was a narrow space next to the wall. Sitting on the edge of the mattress, she unfastened her skirt. Why should she care what he saw, I was only Ben, after all. If he wanted to ignore her, she would just ignore him too.
Gertie played with her new Russian doll, the kind you opened up to find smaller and smaller dolls inside. A piece clattered to the floor.
“You’ll lose the babies if you don’t keep them together.” Delia picked it up. Why couldn’t Ben bring things they could actually use like flannel vests or tins of canned fruits? Once he had given Helga a fantastic hat with a stuffed red bird, large as life, on the crown. Helga had made a big fuss about keeping it clean in a special box, but she had never actually put it on. Where would she wear it, anyway?
“If you keep eating candy, you’ll have no stomach for dinner.” She wiped a streak of bright green drool off of Sid’s chin.
“Don’t want none.” He shifted his lump of candy to the other cheek.
Mama was boiling soup bones with cabbage. Delia gave the pot a poke with the two-pronged fork. It was getting too hot to cook. For the rest of the summer they’d get by on bread with butter or cheese and maybe a little pickled meat. She set the fork aside and began to clear the table. Leah was busy drawing and sulked when Delia told her to move. Sid and Gertie squabbled over something in the bedroom. Helga sat like a stone while everyone walked around her.
If only she and Mama could have their own flat, Delia thought. If she could just save enough money, things would be good between her and Mama again.
“Benjamin?” Helga rose from her waking sleep as Ben ambled from the bedroom followed by the children. “You’ll stay and eat?”
“No Ma.” He kissed Helga on the top of her head and tossed a handful of coins onto the table. Some rolled to the floor. Gertie and Sid squealed. Ben turned and left, his hands thrust in his pockets, whistling as he went down the stairs.
“Put that on the table.” Delia caught Sid trying to slip a coin into the tiny pocket of his overalls.
“S’only a penny.”
Delia looked around. Pennies, nickels, and a few dimes. Not that much, but enough to make a lot of noise.
Leah helped Delia dish the food out. They ate in silence. Sid and Gertie played with their toys and picked at their dinner. Helga just sat there. “Eat,” Mama said. Helga did nothing.
Leah began to talk about the Tuesday Girls’ Club at the Henry Street Settlement House where they helped you with English and gave drawing lessons.
“And sewing?” Mama looked at Helga perhaps hoping Helga would say something to Leah about all the work that needed to be done at home. Leah looked at Delia, silently pleading for help. Delia mumbled something about how the English lessons sounded like a good thing.
“Now you’ve got Leah running around too,” Mama said.
So Leah announced she felt sick and couldn’t taste another bite. But after they had finished washing the dishes she pulled Delia back into the bedroom. “See.” She pressed her toe down on one of the floorboards next to the inside wall. The end jutted up revealing a small bundle tucked into the hollow space beneath. “That’s where Ben keeps the rest of it. He has fifty-cent pieces and I saw a silver dollar. He said he’d kill me if I told. I said I needed drawing things.”
Delia looked down at the knotted up handkerchief filled with coins. So much! Ben must be gambling. And a gambler was no better than a thief. That’s what her mama had said. “Leave it be,” she told Leah. A thief. They lived with a thief. As soon as she saved enough, she and Mama would leave. She swore a silent oath, “May my hand wither from my arm if we do not leave this place.”
By nine-thirty only Delia and Mama were left at the table, sewing. In summer the street stayed alive long after dark. You could hear an organ grinder, a violin, boys playing ball, people just sitting out talking, and in the distance, a balalaika. Delia wanted to stuff rags in her ears. She didn’t want to listen to the balalaika, or to her mother either. She wished her mother would forget about the letter, about everything, but Mama wouldn’t leave it alone.
“And the neighbors, they read. Now everyone thinks my daughter is a girl who says she shouldn’t work.”
“I didn’t say that. I just said things could be different that’s all.”
“Remember how we came here? Different is when you have no place to sleep and nothing to eat.”
Why was Mama so terrified? Once her mother had been the best operator in the shop. The other women looked up to her. Now she sat hunched over the endless pile of sewing in someone else’s house afraid to stop working even for a minute.
“I’ll find us a room of our own,” Delia said. “Just for the two of us, the way it used to be. I’ll have my job, and you can take work in that’s not so hard. You’ll sing and--”
“Sing? Since when do I sing?”
“When I...when Clara and I were little. You knew all the songs. Jewish ones, Russians one, even English ones from the music halls. You’d sit in the front room at night sewing and singing.”
“Sing?” For a long while her mother sat there like Helga, gazing into nothing. “A hundred years ago, I used to sing.” She picked up the shirt and started sewing again.
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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