Grandmom, Mom, My Sister Jane, The Famous Writer Anzia Yezierska And Me
Massive oak doors greeted visitors to the Alcazar Hotel in the fall of 1965. I took a deep breath and pushed my way into the two-story Moorish lobby with a giant tiled fountain at its center. In the 1920’s, the Alcazar had been an elegant hotel, but now it was a genteel residence for the elderly. Ladies chatted over tea beside a baronial fireplace crackling with a real fire, even though it was still September. I made my way across the echoing floor to the reception desk.
“I have a job interview with Miss Anzia Yezierska,” I announced. I was sixteen and had answered an ad posted on the bulletin board at my high school, beside the usual ads for babysitters: “Famous New York writer looking for literary assistant.” I had never heard of Miss Anzia Yezierska, but if she said she was a famous New York writer, I believed her.
“Just a moment, I’ll ring her,” the receptionist said, handing me Miss Yezierska’s apartment number on a slip of paper. “The elevator is behind you to the left.”
On the third floor, I knocked on Miss Yezierska’s louvered door, feeling half fool, half bold-young-writer-getting-her-break. The door opened to a pair of cloudy blue eyes that seemed to float towards me. An ancient woman stared at me appraisingly.
“You know, I can’t afford to pay you very much,” Anzia Yezierska said without introduction.
“That’s okay,” I reassured her. “The experience is what’s most important.”
The tiny woman smiled approvingly. “Please come in.”
The apartment was a small efficiency looking out on the hotel courtyard, the furnishings spare and impersonal. There must have been a bed, but it was hidden somewhere, probably in a closet. An old-fashioned typewriter sat on the coffee table beside a typed manuscript, assorted papers, books and a large magnifying glass.
“Are you a writer?” Miss Yezierska asked abruptly. Not, do you like writing? Not, do you want to be a writer when you grow up, but… are you a writer? I hadn’t been in her apartment five minutes, and here this blind, bent, imperious r-e-a-l w-r-it- e-r wanted an answer to the question that had been torturing me all year. I closed my eyes and jumped.
“Yes,” I said breathlessly, “I am a writer.”
“Good,” she nodded. The job interview was over. Leaning on her cane, she lowered herself onto the sofa.
“All of my books are about Jews. When I was your age I’d already left home to be a writer. I lived on oatmeal and graham crackers. You make sacrifices to be a writer! That’s all I wanted. I was crazy to tell stories about all the people I knew. Don’t get discouraged. I wrote for years before someone gave me a chance. Do you have a piece of paper? Write this down. You should read my books: Red Ribbon on a White Horse, you can get it at the library. It tells about becoming a writer and going to Hollywood. Wait. First you should read Bread Givers, are you writing this down?”
An hour later I floated out of Miss Yezierska’s apartment. She was the real thing. Her books were at the library. She’d gone to Hollywood and written for the movies.
I boarded the bus back out to the suburbs and sailed into the house, full of myself and my good fortune.
“I got the job, Mom! I got it! I’m a literary assistant to a real writer!”
“What kind of real writer needs a high school kid as a literary assistant?” my mother asked. She was cooking dinner and didn’t look up. “Maybe she wrote some books, it doesn’t matter. I don’t want you locked up with some old lady. If she’s looking for company, let her hire a nurse.”
“She was famous,” I said, trying to stand up for myself like Anzia Yezierska must have done when she was my age and about to leave home to be a famous writer. Generally, I was meek and compliant. “She was a famous Jewish writer. They made her books into movies.”
“First, I’ve never heard of her,” my mother said. “Second, famous writers don’t live at the Alcazar. Third, that’s the end of this discussion. Get your books off the kitchen counter and go set the table. Grandma and Grandpa are coming for dinner.”
I went to my room and shut the door. Burrowing beneath stacks of white cotton underpants, bras and neatly rolled knee socks, I found my plastic cosmetics case. Inside was babysitting money, two letters from a boy I used to like, a contraband floral bra (with matching bikini panties) and my diary. I was sprawled on the bed spewing venom into it when my little sister walked in. At 11, Jane was already one of the cool kids. I was not. I was a chunky, high-waisted introvert with thick glasses, mousy brown hair and an unfashionably big bust.
“What are you doing?”
“Mom says set the table.”
I closed my diary and sat up. “I got a job today. I’m going to be the literary assistant to a famous writer.”
“No, you aren’t,” Jane said. “Mom’s talking to Grandma right now and they aren’t going to let you. They want you to be a normal person and have normal friends and do normal stuff.”
“No one in this house is normal. Why do I have to be the normal one?”
Jane’s red hair swung around and disappeared out the door.
When my grandparents came over for dinner — which was all the time; they lived just a few blocks away — we ate in the dining room. There was a plate of sweet-and-sour tongue on a platter in the middle of the table, a bowl of rice, canned peas, a tossed salad, Wishbone dressing, a loaf of rye bread and a bottle of ginger ale.
“What’s tongue really?” my sister asked, as my mother skewered a couple of pieces with the serving fork and piled them onto her plate.
“Tongue is tongue. What do you think it is?”
“You mean cow’s tongue? Oh my God. Get it off my plate.”
“You eat tongue all the time,” my mother said. “You like tongue.”
“I hear you got an after-school job helping an old lady with her papers,” my grandmother said. She was young for a grandmother, about sixty. She’d been one of the first women to pass the Ohio bar back in the early thirties.
“Her papers are famous books and stories and New York Times book reviews,” I said, raising my voice in Anzia Yezierska’s defense.
“What’s this old lady’s name? Maybe I’ve heard of her.”
“Anzia Yezierska. She was popular about the time Mom was born. Her family immigrated to New York when she was a little girl because of pogroms. Most of her work is about Jewish life in the tenements. They made two of her books into movies.”
“How do you know she’s telling the truth?” my grandmother said. “It’s easy for people to make up stories, and how would you know the difference? She could tell you anything and you’d believe her. She could be a crazy person.”
My mother had gone upstairs to take off her girdle, my sister and brother had wandered away, without clearing any plates, to watch Gilligan’s Island, and my Grandpa had retired to the bathroom with the Cleveland Press to study the stock market. My father was working late.
“No. She’s weird, but she’s not crazy,” I said, hurt, as usual. “Her eyes are bad. She needs someone to read to her, help her make changes and stuff like that. Why can’t you believe that something good happened to me? Your granddaughter’s in 11th grade and just got a job as a literary assistant! If I got a job scooping ice cream at Draeger’s, you’d be thrilled, Grandma.” I pushed back, a little experiment. Not much, but I did it.
My grandmother refilled her glass with ginger ale. “When I was your age, I was working full-time as a secretary. Of course, I’d skipped two grades so I’d already finished high school. You learn a lot about the world working in an office. Maybe you could get a job as a Girl Friday in a nice office.” She was still eating, and plopped a slice of tongue from her plate onto mine. “Help me out with this, I took too much.”
“I don’t want to work in an office. You’re not going to turn me into a secretary! I’m going to write and I’m going to take this job as a literary assistant and I don’t want any more tongue.” Wow. I said all that.
“And I don’t want anymore lip,” my grandmother said, laughing at her cleverness. “A literary assistant is a secretary, Patty. What do you think a literary assistant is?”
I stood up and began clearing the table. All I could think was, at my age Anzia Yezierska had already left home. She picked herself up, walked out and became a writer. She didn’t even care that her parents were poor and sick and threatened to never speak to her again. And look at me. I was clearing the table for everyone, while Anzia Yezierska was already living on oatmeal and graham crackers.
The next tuesday was rainy, and the temperature had dropped twenty degrees. I’d forgotten my umbrella, so I tied a plastic bag over my head, and was drenched by the time I got to the Alcazar. I was wearing the camel’s hair trench-coat that I’d inherited from my grandmother and it fit really poorly — the belt tied under my bust instead of at my middle. I had to wear it because it came from Milgrams, an upscale ladies’ dress shop in Cleveland, and was too expensive to give to the maid. I trudged up the steps to Miss Yezierska’s apartment. She would have refused to wear a coat that didn’t fit her just because her mother and grandmother told her to. I stood shivering in the hall.
The door opened a crack, and a large, blue eye gazed out at me through the safety chain.
“I’m Pat Abrams,” I said. Miss Yezierska didn’t move or say anything. “You asked me to help you with your writing.” No blink of recognition. “You said you wanted me to be your literary assistant.”
“I forgot that you were coming today,” she said finally. She opened the door, but seemed annoyed.
I held out my dripping jacket. “My coat got really wet.” She pointed to a wooden chair, then settled herself on the sofa. She picked up some mail and handed it to me.
“I can’t make this out. Would you read it for me?”
I brushed my wet hair back from my face, dried my hands on my skirt, and excitedly took the letter. It was a telephone bill. I spent the next half hour reading and repeating numbers and reassuring her that everything added up correctly. It was not what I thought we’d be doing. I thought we’d be editing short stories or working on her new novel. My spirits sank. At least two longdistance calls were to an editor in New York, though.
Finally, satisfied that she wasn’t being cheated by the phone company, Miss Yezierska relaxed and looked at me. I had the sense that she’d just remembered who I was. “You’re interested in writing,” she said, a glimmer of recognition lighting her face. “You were going to get my books from the library.”
“I got a copy of Bread Givers. I’ve almost finished it.”
“Do you like it?”
I was momentarily tongue-tied. Although the dialogue was often stiff and melodramatic, I’d been swept up in the passionate quarrels between an Old World father and a daughter struggling to find her place in America. The book presumed to be a novel, but it seemed to balance on a razor’s edge between fact and fiction, sometimes cutting one way, sometimes the other. The heroine was undoubtedly the young Anzia Yezierska, bright, brave and determined — but also unforgiving and selfish. The father calls his daughter Blut-Un-Eisen, Blood and Iron. She lives up to the name by fiercely turning her back on her father’s curses and her mother’s tears in the single-minded pursuit of her own ambition. The literary voice was passionate and overwrought — like my grandmother’s when she was in one of her dramatic moods. If I said something, would I be critiquing Miss Yezierska’s life… as well as her book? I was confused, but wanted to say something nice.
That was me, always wanting to say something nice. “Sara Smolinsky, the main character, reminds me of my grandmother,” I finally sputtered. I’d had a moment of introspection, and was thinking about how Grandma was like Anzia Yezierska. Unlike me.
The phone rang, and Miss Yezierska excused herself, disappearing into a little alcove adjacent to the kitchen. When she returned, she said that her daughter had called to remind her of a dental appointment. I hadn’t imagined that “Miss” Yezierska had ever been married or had a family.
“Does your daughter live in Cleveland?” I asked, wide-eyed. “Do you have grandchildren?”
But she was suddenly deaf, and looked past me without responding. My face burned at the unspoken rebuke.
“It’s almost five o’clock. That’s enough for today,” she said suddenly, leaning heavily on her cane. “I’m tired. At your age I was never tired, but now it’s different. Can you come again on Friday?”
“What about Thursday? I thought I was supposed to come Tuesdays and Thursdays from 3:30 to 5:30.”
“So come on Thursday if you like.” She seemed completely indifferent.
I gathered up my soggy coat and books.
“Have you read Proust?” she asked, addressing my back.
“I’ve heard of him. What did he write?”
“Remembrance of Things Past. Read it. It will teach you how to write.”
“He’s French, right?”
“His mother was Jewish. You cannot become a real writer until you’ve read Proust.” The door closed behind me.
“So, how’s the literary assistance business?”
My grandmother was leaving our house as I got off the bus, her arms full of garment bags on their way back to Peggy Fisher’s, another popular ladies’ dress shop in our neighborhood. She constantly brought home dresses to “audition” — for Mom and herself — but they almost never made the cut.
“It’s great. Today she told me to read Proust.”
“Ah, yes, the petite Madeleine. That reminds me, I brought some coconut bars for dessert. Don’t bother your mother, she’s taking a nap. Don’t eat them all before dinner.”
I went into the kitchen and found the box from Davis Bakery. A big “taste” had already been cut off a few of the bars, so I finished them off.
I went up to my bedroom, kicked off my shoes and opened Bread Givers to the page where I’d left off. For once, the house was quiet.
Sara Smolinsky, adorned in a beautiful new dress, is racing to meet her fiancé when she collides with a destitute old man selling chewing gum on the street. As she stoops to help him retrieve his wares from the mud, she realizes that he’s her father. Pain, guilt and remorse wash over her, but the old scholar, coughing and chilled to the bone, is as proud and intransigent as ever. It was a good book. I felt as though I were reading Dickens with a Yiddish accent. I thought about what a jerk my grandmother could be.
My mother yelled that dinner was almost ready, so I reluctantly closed the book and went downstairs to set the table and put out the bottles of ketchup and salad dressing.
“What have you been doing all afternoon?” my mother asked, slicing the meatloaf and starting to pass it around.
“I was at work,” I said, a little hissily. She knew where I’d been. “I have that new job. Remember?”
“Well, while you were at so-called work,” she said belittlingly, “I got a call from Mr. Englert. He says you’re flunking algebra.”
“Flunking? How can I be flunking? We haven’t even had mid-terms yet.”
“Well, he wants you to stay after school for tutoring, and then I want you to come home and finish your homework. If you have time left over, you can baby-sit for people who will actually pay you.”
I was enraged. “Why don’t you want me to have this job?” I fumed. “Are you afraid I’ll do something interesting… and creative… instead of turning into a stupid housewife?”
My father pointed at me sternly with his fork. “That’s no way to speak to a mother.”
“Miss Yezierska’s counting on me to be there on Thursday to help her with a story. You want me to just not show up? Is that what you want?”
“Calm down, calm down,” my mother said. “Go on Thursday, say good-bye like a lady. Fair enough?”
She dabbed at some ketchup on her bathrobe with a wet napkin.
“So, life isn’t fair.”
On thursday, i knocked tentatively on Miss Yezierska’s door. She looked at me for a moment, and then nodded and walked back into her apartment. She recognized me. Victory! I followed her, closing the door behind me. A pile of typed papers were stacked beside the typewriter. She’d been working! She handed me a letter and asked me to read it out loud:
Dear Miss Yezierska,
Thank you so much for giving us the opportunity to review your poignant story. The subject of aging is worthy of further exploration. Unfortunately, the work is too narrow for our general audience.
… then a signature. I noted that the letter had been sent months earlier.
“They don’t like stories about old people,” she said, “but old people need a voice. That’s what I write about now.” She put the letter back in its envelope. “I wanted you to see that. It’s never easy for a writer.”
“Did you get the story published?”
“Not that one. If you have any strength in your body, any breath in your lungs, you keep working.”
“Are you working on that story right now?” I asked, desperate for a glimpse of the writer’s life. I pointed to the papers on the coffee table.
“Yes. And I would like you to read it. Out loud so I can hear it. Tell me if you don’t understand something, or if I used a wrong word.”
“A wrong word?”
“I wasn’t born speaking English like you.”
As I read, Miss Yezierska instructed me to cross out several words and sentences. I told her that I liked one of the sentences and she left it in. That was thrilling. Huge. She listened to me. She asked if she had used a word correctly. I told her that she had.
The story was about an old woman’s relationship with another old woman who was struggling to keep up appearances, and not let her children know that she needed money. Eventually, the woman becomes ill and they have to call her daughter. I think this was the story — I think. I’ve read all her stories since that time, so my later knowledge is somewhat conflated with my memories. I wondered who typed the pages, and who would re-type the corrected ones later. I was dying to ask about that, but was too shy to ask.
As I put on my jacket at 4:55, I told her that I was really sorry, but I had to leave early as my mother and grandmother were taking me shopping, and also I wouldn’t be able to help her anymore. I needed to stay after school for tutoring in math. I had dreaded this moment, but she took the news with disturbing equanimity. She told me that if I wanted to be taken seriously as a writer, I would have to join PEN. I had no idea what that was but thought it must be the grown-up version of Quill and Scroll, the high school journalism club. Miss Yezierska said she would write a letter to recommend me after I’d published my first few stories. I thanked her and promised that I’d contact her at that point.
At the louvered door, she handed me an apple. I was embarrassed to take it, but she was insistent: I had to take the apple. So I took it. It was the only salary that I earned from my career as a literary assistant.
As I walked across the echoing stone floor in the Moorish lobby, a man behind the desk called out to me, “The Dodgers won!” Good for them, I thought. For a moment I considered taking my apple and pitching a fast one at the porcelain vases over the fireplace. But it wasn’t in me.
That’s what I remember. Anzia Yezierska — I did love the name. And how about Blut-Un-Eisen? Blood and Iron. It was nice on the tongue.
My grandmother’s olds 88 was parked beside the curb. I slunk into the backseat and refused to talk. We headed toward the brand-new Severance Mall, my mother and grandmother ignoring my dramatic funk, chatting cheerfully with each other about the new coat they were going to buy me as a consolation prize. I hated them. I hated my compliance. I ate the apple. We bought the coat. I hated it.
Patricia Averbach grew up, read Proust, bought her own clothes, married, had children and a practical career, and kept on writing. She teaches a writer’s workshop online in Second Life.