My mother liked to say that for the Jewish housewife every day was either a prelude or a sequel to the Sabbath, and only Wednesday was a day she could call her own. Until we arrived in New York in 1941 as refugees from Belgium, every day must have been a Wednesday. From the day she married my father in Halbertstadt, Germany in May 1923 until May seventeen years later, my mother commanded cooks, cleaners, seamstresses, and nannies.All that was lost in the war.
My earliest memories are of our seedy apartment on 97th Street on Manhattan’s Upper West Side. My mother washed our clothes on a scrubbing board in the kitchen sink, mastered American weights and measures, found her way to the Garment district to buy lengths of tulle and felt forms to create her own hats. She carried groceries home in brown paper bags rather than use a shopping cart which she thought was vulgar. She never left the house without hat and gloves. In winter, she took me to the Metropolitan and instructed me on the difference between a Rembrandt and a Rubens. In summer, we trekked by subway and bus to the beach at Riis Park, armed with Skol suntan lotion and slabs of left-over challah slathered in butter, and hard-boiled eggs, our “go to” snack.
Four months after my father died, my mother remarried. We were moving to London. I was furious that so soon my mother took another husband. In the fall, I was to attend the prestigious Grammar School my stepfather’s sisters and daughters had attended, but until then I was to go to the Lycee Francais of South Kensington. Although we had spoken French in New York, and I still spoke it with my mother, it was not the sparky Parisian French of the Lycee but of a rougher cut, the French of Antwerp which to Parisian French what Brooklynese is to the Queen’s English. The only aspects of the Lycee I appreciated were French poetry and our half-day, which happened to be Wednesday. My mother made those days a time she would spend with me alone.
At noon, I couldn’t wait to see my mother. I longed for an embrace, perhaps even a few moments in her lap, though I was far too old for that. I wanted her to show me we were still close. I wanted her to tell me that I was her mid-week respite, her Wednesday. “I’m hungry,” I declared, pointing to some darling petit fours in the window of a tea shop. “Today,” my mother declared, flipping the long scarf of her lovely new black cashmere coat over her shoulder and making sure her smart little cloche perched atop her Gibson-girl style coif was secure, “we’re going to the Burlington Arcade.”
Soon we were walking down, quiet streets, among men in bowler hats and rolled up umbrellas, and ladies, dressed rather like my mother, sporting hats, gloves and the occasional fox boa. Two large gold-colored gates appeared, guarded by two tall men in uniform, gold buttons gleaming down the front of their long heavy wool coats. “Here we are,” my mother sighed with relief, as if she had come to the end of a pilgrimage.
Only feet away from those guards, a silky silence enveloped us. “Look at this,” my mother whispered as she applied her kid-gloved finger to a tiny shop window, the sweetness in her voice that of a child enchanted by a doll house. Little jade vases no bigger than my pinky rested on a black velvet cushion. “What are they for?” I asked, eager to share in her rapture. “For heaven’s sake,” my mother snarled, “they’re beautiful, that’s what they’re for.”
My mother edged to the next window. Our afternoon was already drifting towards its end. Standing at the next window in line, my mother beckoned. “Look at these,” she said, her speech more rapid as if to acknowledge how little time we had. Tiny profiles of long-necked women, their hair piled on top of their heads rather like my mother’s peered at me out of pale orange, pink and taupe backgrounds. Here and there a diamond chip twinkled in an earlobe or rested on an ample bosom. “Do you know what these are?” my mother asked, knowing I had no idea. “They’re cameos,” she said, tucking back a wisp of hair that had escaped her cloche. I wondered whether she wanted me to see the resemblance between her and the lovelies in the window.
We moved along. There were cashmere sweaters in luscious colors, tiny silver boxes with pastel-colored enamel lids that seemed to ripple like the gentlest waves at Riis Park. There were gold chains as thick as the braids I’d worn only a few years earlier, miniature portraits of beautiful men with long red curls and ruffled collars. The pavement softened. I was walking on thick rugs, I was a character in a story I didn’t know.
My mother tapped me on the forearm. She reached into the smooth leather satchel that hung off her wrist. Perhaps she had spirited some of those pink and white petit fours out of the tea shop window. She pulled off her glove, fished out something round and spread apart the tucked-in ends of a linen napkin. In her palm, lay two hard-boiled eggs in their shells. “Help yourself,” she said.
She was no longer showing the awareness of her own beauty the way she had in front of the cameos. A tenseness was spreading through her. “This’ll do fine,” she said as she tapped the egg against the doorframe of a shop that displayed men’s ties and ascots. The sound of the cracking shell made me think of gun fire, the kind I’d seen in the newsreels during the war. At once, one of the men in uniform was upon us, “Madam,” he uttered in a chocked voice. An affront had been delivered to the decorum of the Arcade.
My mother’s charming cloche slipped to the side of her head, her long scarf drooping off her shoulder. She was once again a refugee, her elegance undone by the clatter of an eggshell. We were back in New York, too poor to eat out at a restaurant. It was no longer Wednesday, the numinous day between, but a sudden fall from the Golden Age to the Leaden. English money itself presented the baffling asymmetry of pounds, guineas, shillings, pence and farthings and made it hard for us to understand the true cost of things. (Had those petit fours really been too expensive?) It was all as illogical as the very moment we were occupying, an elegantly dressed woman, with an ordinary child eating hard boiled eggs in the Burlington Arcade.
I don’t know if my mother ever ate her egg. We headed in silence to the other end of the Arcade and back on the street. I wanted to go home with her. I wanted to hear her sing French folk songs about lost birds and drowned fisherman. I didn’t care about beauty, I wanted her hugs. I wanted a true Wednesday, a time poised between necessity and possibility.
My mother boarded the Northern Line, while I headed for the Bakerloo. As we parted, my mother patted my cheek. She hadn’t put on her glove again. Her hand was cold and I reached up to clasp it. Then she reached over and gave me a kiss.
All the way home, I covered my cheek with my hand. I wanted to hold on to my mother’s touch, I wanted to hold on forever to that dim rosy light, to our drifting through a dream world as fragile as an eggshell, mother and child, widow/ new bride, orphan/stepchild, in transition, unsteady in our present, uncertain of our future. That afternoon, I felt our displacement as keenly as I had felt hunger when I first made my way to meet my mother. We were in the realm of light and form, in time and out of time, a Wednesday afternoon between noon and three.