Here is the short story:
“Through the Years”
My mother is now one hundred years old. Each week I visit her at the retirement manor. And we talk of the past. My mother is proud that she can support herself here in a private room, and be surrounded by her own things, some of which once belonged to Dolly. We talk of Dolly.
When I was growing up, Dolly was my favorite of all my parents' friends. She was full of fun and said whatever came into her head. Now and then Dolly sang out, “Ooh, your mother likes money.”
And now and then my mother winked at me and said, “Dolly keeps the stores in business.”
My mother did like money. She liked to work for it, count it, save it, and get her dollar's worth when she spent it. She received pleasure in her good management of it and she respected its power, especially its power to transform a person's life. She was always interested in knowing who had achieved the American Dream.
My father was not a good provider. My parents came to America separately as young Russian immigrants in 1922, and fell in love. Yet my father remained no better than a struggling immigrant all the days of his life. So my mother worked at her sewing machine in the garment district, and she became the chief family provider.
My mother is the most un-frivolous person I know. Her life became so pragmatic that she lost, for the most part, her ability to play, to be childlike. Unless her fascination with thrift and money well spent were her game.
But Dolly never worked. She and her husband Lester were American born. Lester provided for the family—for Dolly and the two boys. Dolly went to luncheons and played cards in the afternoons somewhere out of the neighborhood, but most of the time she went shopping for herself. So in the beginning, Dolly and Lester Rooney appeared to be further along than our family toward achieving the American Dream.
The Rooneys moved upstairs from us during The Great Depression, and Dolly came down in the evenings into our kitchen which was the hub of our household, where the conversations took place, and visited while my mother labored over the ironing board, stirred a simmering soup, and packed lunches for the following day. Dolly was full of energy; she talked fast, and her eyes danced in her chubby face sprinkled with freckles and framed by whatever the beauty shop did that week to her red curls. She liked my mother's wry humor, and my mother liked Dolly’s pep. Dolly was good company for my mother after a grinding day in the garment district at the sewing machine. She brought all the gossip. Her favorite subject was Lester's rich sister. And my mother was always interested in hearing about the rich. “She's a mean woman,” Dolly started. “Would it make any difference to her in her three-story house riding up and down in her elevator if she sent us some money, say a small check at the first of each month?”
As prudent as my mother was about money, Dolly was in the same degree imprudent. Mother furnished our home with all the essentials. Once an item was set in place, it was bolted there forever. But for Dolly, permanency was ephemeral. Dolly grew tired of her possessions, offering up small objects from time to time as presents for my mother. And my mother found a place for everything, winking to me, “Dolly is redecorating again.” In our home, Dolly's candy dishes and small porcelain statues and vases and china teapots and wall platters took on an immortality denied them upstairs on that conveyer belt of moving merchandise.
After Dolly said goodnight and scurried upstairs, I sat down on a wooden kitchen chair and my mother braided my hair for the next day. “Mother, Dolly and Lester live in the same kind of apartment we do. They pay the same rent. How can Dolly afford to buy so much?”
“Lester earns a good living.” Her strong fingers work skillfully, pulling and twining the coils into a single thick chord. “Dolly buys on lay-away, and pays little by little. Sometimes when Dolly buys, she doesn't always pay. There, your braid is ready for school tomorrow.” For tomorrow, because my mother left for work every weekday morning before I awoke.
One evening Dolly entered our kitchen waving her stubby, painted fingernails. “The merchants say they'll sue. Who's worried? They won't sue. I don't have anything,” and she laughed and laughed. My mother's muscular arms guided the iron over my father's work paints; she stirred the soup and packed the lunches. Dolly plunked herself down in a chair, planted her high-heeled shoes with the cutout toes on our linoleum floor and spread her short legs to accommodate her puffy thighs. “We attended the big party at Lester's sister's house last night. I really outfitted myself.”
“The party was too beautiful? Rich?”
“Ooh, Rosie, let me tell you. We drove up to the house. All three stories were lighted. Valet parking. We walked inside; the chandeliers were shimmering everywhere. Butlers walked around with silver trays of champagne and hors d'oeuvres. I ate every chance I could. You never saw such food. My sister-in-law made her grand entrance from the elevator. She was wearing a purple and black sequined gown. My brother-in-law was wearing a tuxedo; most of the men were.”
“Rosie!” she laughed. “Lester has two suits. When one is in the cleaners, he wears the other. Why does Lester need a tuxedo? Women need clothes. Oh, and there was a small orchestra.”
“What were you wearing?”
“I bought a black lace gown and a sequined jacket. The saleslady told me, 'Sequins are the height of fashion right now.' Well, you know me, Rosie,” she laughed. Then her voice deepened into a serious tone. “We were standing near Lester's sister and brother-in-law who were with a group of their friends. We didn't know any of them and we weren't introduced to anyone. My brother-in-law was talking about a man in the company who was caught stealing. I piped up, 'Let him steal. You've got enough.' That's the only socializing we did. We ate and left. I never really have a good time when we attend their parties.” Her eyebrows furrowed. “On the drive home, I talked to Lester about his sister. 'She doesn't introduce us to her friends,’ I said. ‘Why not?' Lester didn't answer me. 'Lester, do you hear me?' Not a word. 'Lester, you need a hearing aid.' He just kept driving. I've told him a million times he needs an aid. I talk and talk. It's like he's not even there. I told him, 'Go to your rich sister. She'll buy one for you.'”
I always liked Lester. He was a quiet, sweet man. I could see how Dolly's appetite for life had attracted him when he first met her. As I say, she was fun. But, then one day my mother told me more. After the first seven years of marriage, Dolly's appetite became a concern to Lester. When he married her, he was in business with a partner. He bought a house and gave Dolly access to the bank account so she could furnish the house as she desired. The baby grand piano looked glamorous and romantic and rich even though neither of them played. And when their two sons arrived early in the marriage, she bought everything under the sun for them. But one day in the seventh year of marriage, the partner came to Lester. He liked Lester and had hesitated telling him—Lester was such a nice person, he was so happy in his marriage, and now he was the father of two fine boys. The partner could put it off no longer. The business, he said, had gone into a reversal. They needed capital. Still he hesitated. But then, “Dolly has been spending a great deal of money, withdrawing consistently from the business. I tried to juggle the books as long as possible—”
The business went. The house was sold, and the baby grand piano. They moved into the apartment building, above our unit. By the time my mother finished telling me all this, I was disgusted with Dolly. The woman was no longer fun. How could my mother respect her and remain friends with her all these years? Undoubtedly Dolly was merely a curiosity for her, an entertainment.
But my mother wasn’t finished with the story. Lester, she said, went to his sister in the three-story house for help. He heard the elevator whirring. His sister came down; the wrought iron door folded into the wall; and she stepped out.
He told his sister what had happened.
“You certainly made a marriage. To give you money is to drop it down her toilet. That woman is going to eat you up alive. Get away from her.”
“She's my wife, the mother of my sons. I love my sons.”
“She'll be the death of you.”
And since that visit, my mother went on, Lester has been behind a desk somewhere in his brother-in-law's company. Dolly doesn’t know what he does there all day. She shrugs her shoulders and says, “He sits.”