by Rebecca Boroson
IN 1905, when my grandfather was a divorced man who had cut off his payess and left his shtetl to live as a freethinker, he went to see a farmer who had three marriageable daughters.
The daughters, whose mother had died in childbirth, were growing up wild, and the farmer was rumored to be glad if anyone, even an apostate, would take them off his hands. Hence the visit of my grandfather. (I will call him Avraham.)
Of the three young women, one was dark-haired, another a redhead, and the third a blonde. Avraham had never met them before, and they had never before been inspected by a prospective husband. He called the blonde over to him. Her green eyes tilted like almonds. She was tiny but shapely. And she laughed out loud when he set her on his lap. “This one,” he told the farmer. “I’ll take this one.” She was 16 years old. (I will call her Sarah — because she laughed out loud.)
Sarah was an utter innocent when she married Avraham. The story, told by her son, my uncle, laughing, who heard it from his father (I do not know if he laughed), is that she ran out of bed, screaming, on their wedding night. Today we would call what happened in that bed rape, but that’s how, more than a century ago, many if not most marriages began. We might even, given her age, call it pedophilia.
SHE WAS ILLITERATE. He taught her to read and write. She was so thankful for this gift that she sat down one day and mended his entire wardrobe to show her gratitude.
“Avraham,” she said to him, proud of her needlework, “I have sewn up all those dreadful holes.” Then it was his turn to laugh out loud. His unsophisticated young bride had “repaired” the fronts of all his trousers and underthings. (Freud might have seen a deeper meaning in this.)
The next year, they were expecting their first child. As the birth drew near, Avraham, a watchmaker, needed to travel on business. He gave her some money and told her that when the time came, she should take a droshky, a carriage, to the hospital, since he could not be with her. Sarah, now all of 17, was afraid of going to the hospital, but since he insisted, she agreed to obey him.
When the first contraction struck, she signaled a droshky, as she had been told, and began the journey to the hospital. But when the pain abated, she thought (still a farm girl at heart), “Why do I need a droshky? I can walk to the hospital.” And so she paid the driver and began walking. Another pain, another droshky, and so on, until she finally reached the hospital, where she gave birth to my mother.
What to do with a woman like that? She had grown up motherless, and no one had taught her the social and other graces. She was a superb cook, but a middling housekeeper. She would rather sing and dance with the children than clean the house. Her long blonde hair was always tumbling down, hoydenish, from its coils.
According to family lore, once she served dinner from a platter decorated by an unmistakable strand of blond hair. “Sarah,” said Avraham, “in the future, I would like a separate plate for the hair.”
He was fond of her, but he was fonder still of order, and of his own will. Her country ways were often the butt of his wit, and he scolded her as if she were another badly behaved child in the household. Like many unlettered people, she respected book-learning, more than, perhaps, is deserved, and his well-chosen words would sting.
They did not live happily ever after. I remember her huddled in my mother’s kitchen, in tears: “What does he want from me? I am a cold woman.” (I was puzzled, back then; what did she mean, “a cold woman”? And I remember thinking, how could anyone make this shining woman cry?)
And yet, after he died, though she was sought after, she did not remarry. She said that no man on earth was his equal, and that she preferred to stay alone.
I think she just wanted to be free — to be, at least in her imagination, the person she was before he met her, a country girl with long blonde hair and green, almond-shaped eyes, a delightful child who laughed out loud.
Rebecca Boroson is editor emerita of the Jewish Standard, a weekly newspaper based in Teaneck, N.J. She last appeared here with “On Being a Jewess.“