When Mama was in her late nineties, we visited her one week a year. She lived in Far Rockaway, New York. We lived in Redwood City, California. We would sit with her and a tape recorder and we ‘d ask her a question. She’d go on for hours.
Mama said she couldn’t write (she ‘d hardly gone to school), and so we bought her a tape recorder of her own. A few times, she actually mailed us tapes of herself talking. On one side, she ‘d address herself to Phil, screaming and cursing at the top of her lungs because Phil’s children had married non-Jews. On the other side Mama’s tone would totally change. “Betty, ” she’d purr, “tochterel, ketzeleh…How are you, faygeleh.'” (Betty is only the children’s step-mother.) In return for Mama’s tapes, we ‘d send her tapes of us talking. One day Betty said to Mama, “Tell us about your marriage.” What follows is Mama’s unexpurgated answer [bracketed words are Phil’s annotations]:
After, I went to the doctor and I was alright, and everything was good.
My sister-in-law [Eta], may she rest in pieces, you know the first time, when you’re living with a fellow, you should be a virgin. The first time, the blood was down [flowing], so the man knows you’re a virgin. The first time with a man there must be blood.
She [Eta] wants to see my blood. See, I don’t want to show nobody. I wrapped my nightgown in a paper. So, she came to my brother. “What’s a matter with Rivkala [Mama’s Yiddish name], she’s a girl [a virgin] or what? I didn’t see no blood.” Maybe she thought I was living with another boy.
Tanta Eta, she was living in the Bronx and after the wedding—she had two 5- room apartments—she gave us a room to sleep. She wanted me to move out to Lakewood [because Eta suspected that Mama wasn’t a virgin, not having seen the bloody nightgown]. What should I do?
“Rivkala, you not living with Moishe [Mama’s husband] [if you’re not a virgin]!”
I said, “What do you mean? If I’m living with mine husband! You want I should show everybody my blood?”
Oh, so I said to her, “Eta, come over here, I want to show you something.” And I showed her my nightgown.
“Oh,” she said, ”Shen, shen [beautiful].”
I didn’t have no home, see. I didn’t have no rooms, so I found rooms on the fourth floor—three rooms. The toilet was down the hall. Oh, I had plenty, but very nice rooms, really. I clean the floor, and I y make like a palace. And I bought a bed, a dresser, a table, and chairs and it was wonderful.
And my friends all at once come to me I should show them, and I keep that nightgown, and said,”This is the one.” “Oh, Rivkala, oy oy, oh.”
It was good. Those rooms was very nice, was very nice. Eighteen dollars a week. Alright, I didn’t work. Moishe should go to work and I work?! It’s a shame already [for me to work if my husband works].
So I said to mine boss that I’m married. He wish me luck and he gave me a short coat and I went home, and I gave him cake and schnappes. It was wonderful.
Phil and Betty Suchow live in Petaluma, California. Phil, a retired psychologist, spends his time writing. Betty, a retired physical therapist, is an artist.