December 16, 2014
Good morning Keepers of the Book.
Readers like to enter into conversation with an author. Here could be an interesting way — a Serial Book Club of My Novels.
I will submit each novel, one chapter at a time, on my BLOG site for discussion (www.EvelynMarshall.com). When you “Leave a Comment,” I will post your comment on my Facebook page. Then let the discussion begin. Let’s see if it floats. We begin with THE PROVIDER.
The year was 1922.
The three American-born sisters stood waiting in the Chicago train depot with their parents, having prepared themselves to call their cousin, irresistibly to call her, Rosa the Greena.
“Greenhorn” was so harsh. They told each other they were not patronizing. There was even an immigrant song the neighbors sang, very lively, “My Greena Cousina.” She was nineteen and they were slightly younger, but the sisters harbored an unspoken belief that they were wiser and better because they were not foreigners.
A train whistle. A leviathan roaring and black, pulled in out of nowhere and shrieked to an abrupt stop—snorting and sibilating, and exhaling horizontal white vapors. There it stood, out of scale with its surroundings, quivering and hot, and expectant, absorbing the space and the light.
“How will we know her?” the sisters asked. The mother answered, “She will be carrying a sign in front of her: Rosa Galperin. And we also have a sign.” The father pulled out a sheet of cardboard and held it over his chest.
The sisters had been saving their old clothes, the well-intentioned skinny little sisters with pimples and braces. Even though they were younger and therefore probably smaller, they reasoned: Aren’t the immigrants under-nourished and under-developed? They were pleased with their efforts for Rosa the Greena who had come from across the world—from Bessarabia, near the Ukraine.
From Tartarbunar to Akkerman to Kishinev to Bucharest by train and somewhere else and then the boat to New York and through to Ellis Island and then on to her destination: Chicago. She stepped off the train, holding two large bundles tied securely with hemp; and around her neck a string supported the sign with her name on it. They spotted her. They waved and called her name, working their way through the crowd. The father, being the tallest, held their own sign above his head. “Coming through. Coming through.” They reached her with cheers and surrounded her. She stood there, wearing a blue coat and a brown hat with a blue bird on the very top of it. The mother grabbed her and hugged her, and the brown hat with the blue bird flipped off behind her broad shoulders. Then the mother stepped backward so they could all get a good look at the Greena Cousina, and suddenly everyone was quiet. They were taking her in with their eyes. She was nineteen, in her full-bodied, even plump, radiant bloom, with thick golden-copper hair bouncing heavily to her shoulders, and marble skin hued in pink and peach. With Slavic cheekbones, a chiseled nose, and uncompromisingly aligned pearl teeth. Her eyes were wide pools, green and blue, and dreaming.
“THIS is Rosa?”
Their hand-me-downs seemed ridiculous and their braces a deformity and they stared at her, careful not to look at each other quite yet.
The mother spoke in Russian. “I am Buela, your mother’s first cousin. At one time, I looked like your mother. Do I still?” In the American fashion of the day, Buela had plucked her eyebrows into startling moon-shaped arches, the flesh below puffing out as if filled with fluid, and she drew artificial contours around her mouth with her lipstick. Rosa smiled and nodded yes; a small lie.
“This is my husband Albert.” He stepped forward, a large, shaggy man, over-stuffed, and sleepy looking, who suddenly gave Rosa a bear hug, took her bundles, and stepped back.
“And these are our daughters, Audrey here, she is the oldest; Frances is the middle, and Lena is the baby. They are very close in ages. The girls do not speak Russian but somehow you will all manage.”
Each girl hugged her in turn, and Rosa, barely able to tell the sisters apart, they all had the same face, said in carefully rehearsed English, “I am very glad to meet you, my relatives, and to be here in America.”
Buela and Albert wept and dried their eyes with the backs of their hands. Then Albert found a big white handkerchief in his rear pocket and offered it to Buela. She wiped her eyes and gave it back to him. He blew his nose, tucked the handkerchief back into his pocket, and said, “Let’s go, everybody.”
All six of them marched to the car, a row of ducklings behind papa duck. Cousin Albert tossed Rosa’s roped bundles into the trunk while everyone climbed into the car. Rosa stepped onto the running board, lowered her head and crouched her way into the back seat where she sat down on a soft grey sofa, stretched her feet out in front of her, and grabbed hold of a velvet handle on the door as the car lurched forward. Albert accidentally sounded the horn. “Sorry.”
Proudly they rode in the large family car through the city, and two of the sisters who sat in the back seat with Rosa studied her reactions as she looked out the window at the rows of storefronts. They could tell nothing. Her eyes did not stretch wide in delight. The sister in the front seat said, “Ma, ask her what she thinks.”
Buela turned around to Rosa. “What do you think, Rosa? Now be truthful.”
Rosa replied that she had seen pictures of America. And her mother had told her about America. She added that she had spent three days in Bucharest. “Bucharest,” she said in English, “is very beautiful.”
The car passed into a residential neighborhood where long bungalow houses, all alike, all the same color brown, stood close together, three steps leading up to each front door, and a window on each side.
“We are the first family on Maplewood Avenue to own an automobile,” said both sisters in the back seat. The car came to a jerking stop in front of one of these long bungalow houses, one of the larger ones. The sisters watched Rosa Galperin with anticipation as she stared out the window. “Ma, ask her what she thinks now?”
Rosa blurted out, “Where are the white houses with rounded columns?”
They laughed quickly.
Everyone stepped out into the hot, ugly afternoon. It was a dusty yellow day with wet heat, mean, stinging heat. Buela pulled her sticking blouse away from her body. “Such humidity.” Then she repeated this in Russian. Rosa had something to say.
“What is she saying?” the girls asked.
“Rosa is surprised by such weather, it is foreign to her. She says she is looking for the blue sky of summer and the sweet air. She says the women of Tartarbunar sit outdoors in the afternoon and drink tea. She is asking if the women of Chicago sit outdoors in such weather as this?” Buela looked at her girls and smiled, “Tartarbunar is a small town.”
Two by two, everyone marched up to the house. They stepped into a dark entry hall and Rosa, temporarily blinded by the sunlight, saw nothing, although she detected the cooking odor of boiled noodles. She followed the others into the living room. Buela opened the draperies. It made little difference. A low arched ceiling brooded over heavy crimson cornices and draperies, forest green carpeting, red brocaded Victorian furniture, and two enormous Asian vases, black with red and green and gold with a gold dragon curling around the fattest part. A Persian rug with long fringes lay in the center of the room—a rich room. For Rosa it was oppressive and old. She had come to a young country.
One sister asked, “Is this very different from your home?”
Rosa said that her home in Tartarbunar was light. Every year her brothers white-washed the walls. The ceilings were high. Her father painted their honey-colored furniture with green leaves and pink and yellow flowers. Her family had two brass samovars, a smaller one in the parlor, a larger one in the great kitchen. She did not see a samovar in this house.
The three sisters leaned their grinning faces into hers and asked, “Do you like what you see?”
She understood enough and answered in her rehearsed English, “America is the greatest country. I will work and I will watch for luck.”
“Work!” The sisters drew back in disbelief. They nodded their heads and wagged their fingers as if to a child. “No, no, Rosa. With your looks,” now closing in on her and elbowing her with some secret understanding passed on from one generation of females to another, “You must marry a good provider.”
Rosa listened to the translation of this and frowned. Her mother had married a good provider, the proprietor of a prosperous furniture factory in their small town; and wealthy people owned summer homes there, and along with the local people they were good customers. Rosa’s father was able to send all eight of the children, four sons and four daughters, to school. In the evening, the father wore his silk jacket and played his violin while the children studied in earnest. But when the Great War started, the wealthy no longer visited their summer homes and the local people no longer bought furniture. All of the sons went to work, the daughters stayed at home, and Rosa’s father closed the draperies and played his violin in the daytime. Light and color went out of the world when the Great War started, and there was deprivation and monotony.
Yes, her mother had married a good provider. But at the dinner hour when everyone sat together around the large table in the great kitchen under the high ceiling, Rosa’s mother, who at all times wore her pearl earrings and golden chains, unfailingly argued with her father about money. She accused him in front of them all, “You are a stingy man.” The children listened in silence.
Yes, her father had been a good provider before the Great War, and then on its heels the Revolution came. When the Revolution stormed over the land in 1917, the new government ordered all the people to turn in their money—large magnificent bills made of rice paper and bearing an elaborately printed picture of the czar. One family in the town—the story spread from house to house in a matter of minutes—wallpapered their entire parlor with the beautiful bills. The family was taken out to the square and shot. Rosa’s father hurried to the cellar, her mother just behind. He lifted the heavy lid of the trunk where he stored their money and when he looked in and then she, they drew back together. The mice had discovered the delicious rice paper. Piles of it in shreds, and stacks of it riddled with holes and corners nibbled off, and scattered everywhere, pieces that appeared to look like morsels of food. In front of their eyes, little brown mice worked busily on the czar’s beard. The mother turned to the father and began pounding on his chest and she cried out, “All that money. Think of what we could have done with all that money.” Upstairs, the children heard, and Rosa wondered if her mother ever loved her father.