“Its Not About You” Leslie Meyer

Although she believed passionately in relationships built on trust, Caroline knew she would never tell anyone about…

The phone rang and I put down my book.

“Hello?”

“Is this the lady of the house?”

Click. I hung up before the solicitor could begin his spiel.  Today’s salesmen had no style, no showmanship, and no panache. Not like when I was a kid. When I was eleven, my parents were getting a divorce. They didn’t tell me why. All they said about it was, “It’s not about you; it’s about us.” They kept repeating that, over and over, until I stopped asking. Neither of them seemed to want me around. They were always arguing about who should stay home with me, I was sent to spend the summer of 1972 with my Bube Sheinman[1] in Brooklyn. She was my father’s mother and lived on the second floor of a row house. She had a large apartment with old white wallpaper with sprigs of green pine boughs. It had wood floors covered with worn Oriental rugs and a big green horsehair sofa. The well-polished heavy oak furniture was from the 1930s and had come with the apartment. Bube and Zayde[2] had moved there in the 1940s and never left. When Zayde died in 1967, Bube stayed in the apartment, even though my parents begged her to move to Manhattan so she could be closer. Bube said she never considered it for a second. This was her home and she was staying where she wanted to be.

I slept in my dad’s old room, which Bube used as combination sewing and guest room. It was funny to think of my dad as a boy, playing in the back yard or hanging out with other children on the block. Once when we were visiting Bube, before the divorce, he told me about the games he used to play with his friends, like stickball, marbles and Kick-The-Can. He and a pack of children used to run through the neighborhood, only coming inside for meals and to sleep. During hot summer evenings they caught fireflies and put them in jars to light their rooms as they slept. On cold winter days they built snow forts and had raging battles. Now the block was filled with older people and the few children I saw on the street were usually visiting their relatives. I was left to make my own entertainment and Bube let me go around the neighborhood on my own as long as I stayed within a few blocks.

Sunset Park was a great neighborhood. There was an Italian bakery, a Chinese market and even a Norwegian restaurant, all within a few blocks of her flat on 6th Avenue. I loved being able to walk down the street and have those wonderful United Nations moments where each person looked and sounded like they came from a different part of the world. I was happier here than I had been in Manhattan. It was calm at Bube’s and no one was trying to unload me on someone else. Bube was glad to have me at her place and told me so every day. Moreover, she showed it every day in the form of hugs and stories, by teaching me how to cook special dishes, how to iron, how to take care of my things and how to be independent.

Bube had a boyfriend. Every Thursday afternoon at exactly two o’clock, Mr. Eli Lowen, the local Fuller Brush salesman, would ring the bell and come up to Bube’s flat. He was a short, rather slim man of about sixty. He always wore the same bottle green three-piece wool suit with a brightly colored silk tie, a watch on a chain and highly polished shoes. His yarmulke matched his suit and both were shiny with age. I thought he was pretty good looking for an old man (remember, I was eleven!) Mr. Lowen would show us his wonderful collection of brushes, cleaning agents and polishes in his big case. He would lay them out in precise order, largest to smallest, explain with love the special features of each brush. The salesman had a routine so, smooth, so polished, he could sell Bube three brushes before he had been there for five minutes. Bube didn’t mind.

“Mrs. Sheinman,” he would say, “surely you want to know how you can clean your already lovely rugs in half the time with half the effort?” He would sprinkle a handful of popcorn on the floor and just as quickly whisk it away with the Fuller Brush Cordless Bagless Sweeper!

“Mrs. Sheinman,” he continued, “surely you want your kitchen to sparkle like the morning sun? He would scatter a handful of breadcrumbs across the kitchen table and then he would show Bube the wonders of the Fuller Brush Deluxe Table Tidy Crumb Sweeper-In-A-Box.

“Mrs. Sheinman,” and this was his best one yet, “surely you want your granddaughter’s already lovely hair to shine with a luminous glow!” And he would hand Bube the Fuller Brush Lusterbrush. Bube would undo my braids and run the Lusterbrush through my then bright red waist-length hair and the two of them would admire the ripples and shine.  I loved my hair and was rather proud of it, and I was thrilled to get a new hairbrush with such a great name.

Bube would smile, offer Mr. Lowen a cup of tea and some rugelach or cookies or maybe some of the cake we had baked that day, and after re-braiding my hair (using the new Lusterbrush), she would send me upstairs to visit Mrs. Katz, her landlady and best friend. Mrs. Katz was about 80 years old and her apartment always smelled of boiled cabbage, black tea and fresh bread. Mrs. Katz taught me how to play two-handed Bridge that summer and I got pretty good. While we played cards, she told me stories about her family in Poland before World War One. She told me about how rich they had been when they lived in Wroclaw, about their big home outside the city with the pond, horses, large formal gardens, servants and governesses, a wonderful library, a nursery full of toys, and even cars. She said that in 1901, there were only three cars in Wroclaw and her father owned two – a De Dion Bouton and a Locomobile. Her father would take the family driving around the countryside and into the city, frightening horses and chickens and people with the horn.

When Mrs. Katz was ten, her father lost everything in a bad business deal. Gone were the clothes, the cars, the house and the servants. Gone were the books and the toys and their friends. In shame, her father was forced to move the family to Warsaw. Then her stories were about how very poor they were, with all three of them living in one room in the ghetto, with very little food or heat, and how quickly their clothes became shabby from too much wear.  It was their bleakest hour! Then, the miracle happened! Her father’s older brother, Uncle Lazlo, sent them money to join him in America.  Uncle Lazlo, she said, had come to America when he was only seventeen and had done well. He had started a grocery store on the ground floor of this very building, and had slept in the back room for three years until he could afford to rent a flat on the third floor. Eventually, he saved enough money and bought the building and then he sent for his brother and moved them into the second floor.

Sometimes Mrs. Katz would talk about what it was like being new in America.  When Mrs. Katz and her parents arrived in Brooklyn in 1913, the only English words she knew were “Hello, Thank you, and “My address is 5508—6th Avenue in Brooklyn.” She told me about how hard it was to learn English, and that the only thing in school she was any good at was mathematics. She raced through the most complicated math problems the teachers could give her. After the first year, she got the hang of English and did well in high school. Working in the store after school, she said, was the biggest help of all. She was forced to speak English. That’s where she met her husband, Mr. Itzhak Katz, formerly from Riga, now from Brooklyn. He was a few years older and would come into the store every Friday to get a few things before Shabbos[3] and flirt with her. One thing, she said, led to another and they were married in the summer of 1920. Mr. Katz’ apartment was a shabby one, said Mrs. Katz, and as her father was not well, they decided it would be best to live with her parents. In fact, her father’s room had been Mrs. Katz’ room.  They lived there until Uncle Lazlo suddenly died from a heart attack in 1944. She said the family sat shiva[4] for a week, covered all the mirrors, wept and tore their clothes and said Kaddish[5]. And the next month, they moved upstairs and Mr. Katz took over the store.

Mrs. Katz and her husband never had any children, Uncle Lazlo had never married, so when her parents passed, she inherited the building. When Mr. Katz died in 1969, she rented the store to a Chinese man, Mr. Zhao. He sold American and Chinese foods, household items and a great assortment of Chinese candies.

A ritual developed every time I came up to see Mrs. Katz. We would play cards and she would tell me stories, then just before I would go back downstairs, Mrs. Katz went into the kitchen and get the old yellow and brown Yuban coffee can she kept in her pantry. She would take out a dollar and give it to me. She told me it was for a treat because when she was my age, she never had money for little things. I felt funny taking the money; I felt a little guilty because Bube probably wouldn’t like me to take it, and also a little angry because my own parents hadn’t given me any money when they sent me to Brooklyn, just a handful of subway tokens. They may have given money to Bube, but I had no idea. To assuage my guilt, I always made sure that I did a few chores, like taking out the trash, or helping her hang out her laundry on the clothesline, strung on a pulley from her kitchen window over the backyard to a pole along the fence. Then I would go downstairs to the store and buy my favorite treats: salted plums and a bottle of ginger ale. I would suck on the plums until I couldn’t bear their saltiness any longer, then take a swig of ginger ale, its sweetness a shocking contrast to the plums.

When I went back to Bube’s flat, Mr. Lowen would be gone and Bube would be humming as she finished brushing crumbs off the table with the new brush, or sweeping the floor with the bagless sweeper, or wiping or dusting with some other Fuller Brush product.  I would help Bube make dinner and we would eat it in the kitchen, with the windows open so we could feel the breeze. I would tell Bube a little bit about my afternoon, about Mrs. Katz, and how different things were in the old days. I didn’t tell her that I was lonely and angry and that even though I loved Bube, I wished that I could have been a part of Mrs. Katz’ family. Some things you had to keep to yourself.

Then one day in late August after I came back from a visit to Mrs. Katz, and Bube and I were making dinner, she told me that I was going to stay with her and start school in Brooklyn. I froze. Despite the sweltering heat of the stove, I was chilled. She said my parent’s divorce was final and that my dad was moving to New Jersey and that my mother was going to go to San Francisco to live for a while, to find herself. She said that they had given up the apartment and were brining my things over tonight.

Bube said, “It’s not about you, Rosetta, it’s about them.”

***

Thank night when they came over, I was silent as they explained the reasons why they had to go and do whatever it was they had to do without me. They said it was only for a little while; I could go to Dad’s on the weekends, and Mom would be back soon. I couldn’t say a word. I was choked with anger and I knew if I opened my mouth, I would scream and scream and never stop.

As they were getting ready to leave, I felt a calm descend on me. What Bube had said, and what my parents had said, was true. I looked up and said quietly, “It’s not about me. It’s about you. You don’t even know me. Or talk to me. Or care about me. It’s about you. And it’s always about you. I’m staying here because here, it’s about me. Goodbye.” I left them standing at the door, went to my room and shut the door.

Bube never mentioned that night. Dad came over a few times that first year. I never did go to his place in New Jersey and after a while, he stopped coming. Mom went to San Francisco and after a few months, moved to Santa Fe and lived with a musician. She worked in a gallery there and would send me little trinkets. She came back once in 1980 for a visit but it was awkward and after an hour of staring at each other, she left. I stayed with Bube, even when I went to art school. She and Mr. Lowen continued their weekly visits until he could no longer manage the stairs and then Bube would go to his place and make him dinner. One day, Bube announced that she was going to move in with Mr. Lowen and that I could have the apartment. Just like that. I was surprised, but only a little.

Bube and Mr. Lowen lived together until he died and then Bube came back and lived with me until she died in her sleep, just a few months after Mr. Lowen. Bube’s death was easy on me and for some reason I was able to accept it. I mourned but it was soft and almost as painless as her death had been. Dad came to her funeral but we didn’t talk much. Mom was in Alaska with her new boyfriend and sent a card.

Mrs. Katz was still living upstairs. She was 99 years old and no longer able to get out. She had a nurse come in and see her twice a week and I continued to visit her almost every day. When she died, I was more upset than I had been when Bube passed. I mourned her, mourned the loss of her wonderful stories, and the loss of the last of my youth. Even though I am not a very observant Jew, I sat Shiva for Mrs. Katz. I wept. I tore my garments. I said Kaddish. I talked to her spirit and told her everything I had never told her, how she had been my friend, my second mother and my second grandmother. My family. I wept until there were no more tears and I could let her spirit go.

I inherited the house on 6th Avenue. Mrs. Katz left everything to me. When Mr. Zhao decided to close the store, I took it over and opened a coffee shop. I sold rugelach, cookies, cakes, an assortment of Chinese candies, including salted plums and ginger ale. I named it The Bube Katz’ Café.

I looked at the phone and smiled. Then I picked up my book and began to read. I wondered what it was Caroline couldn’t tell anyone.

 

 

 

 


[1] Yiddish for Grandma (pronounced Bubbie)

[2] Yiddish for Grandpa (pronounced Zaydee)

[3] Shabbos: the Jewish Sabbath, celebrated from sundown on Friday to sundown on Saturday.

[4] Shiva: a traditional Jewish period of mourning for close relatives.

[5] Kaddish: the traditional mourner’s prayer.

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About bbcstudiowrites

This blog is me archiving the BBC Studio Writers Workshop.

Posted on March 28, 2012, in Fiction. Bookmark the permalink. Leave a comment.

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