~ Synopsis ~
Determined to escape New York City tenement life, Bayla Szabo born of Jewish Hungarian immigrants yearns to be a blues singer like her heroines, Bessie Smith and Ma Rainey Abandoned by her father, she supports herself and her mother by sewing in a factory during the Depression, but at night, sexy and seductive, she performs to rowdy male audiences in a former speakeasy on Manhattan’s West Side. While her mother’s Old Country superstitions threaten her resolve, Bayla marries into a wealthy, disapproving family where sacrifice, love affair and demons from her past take her far from her dreams, and eventually reality.
Bayla’s daughterLeena, a creature of the Sixties, shamed from childhood by her attraction to women amid the heyday of the Women’s Movement and sexual freedom, defaults to married life, waiting to live true to herself.
Leena’s precocious, talented daughter, Jackie, manipulates whoever threatens her non-stop rush to stardom as she leads her grandmother, Bayla, into the spotlight.
The courage, determination and resilience handed down to these mothers and daughters serves them in different ways beginning in Eastern Europe in 1904 through America’s 21st century in this thought provoking family saga, told in their own voices.
The Artfulness of Women
Each generation will lift the fallen to their feet
and hold them as they learn to walk.
–Gates of Prayer Hebrew Prayer book
But I won’t be blue always
Cause the sun’s gonna shine
In my back door someday.
Trouble in Mind Blues
January 1941- January 1937
Bayla Rothschild maneuvered herself to standing, aimed her body toward the bedroom door and waddled on bare swollen feet when a burst of warm liquid gushed down her legs causing an embarrassing flood on the Persian tree-of-life runner that covered the second floor hallway. With profound ignorance and a ferocious dread of childbirth, Bayla had begun labor. The past months had left her without an iota of control, grotesque, misshapen, exposed, and stuffed. What consequences would her body inflict on her next? With the water drained out of her she stood cemented in place. By the time her husband realized she was missing from their bed, she had already turned to stone.
She would never remember how he managed to get her dressed, coax her down the circular staircase, through the marble hallway, into the garage and the roomy back seat of their blue Ford sedan.
Down the cobblestones of Beleaguered Hill’s steep incline, past prestigious homes lined up like picture postcards, she tried to steady herself with one hand, and dig her nails into the upholstery with the other. “I don’t know what to do,” she shouted because no one had ever told her, and who could she ask when such things were rarely talked about?
Her last glance through the back seat window at the Victorian house at the top of the Hill, its impressive lawn silver-gray in dawn’s winter frost, left her in wide-eyed panic.
“Grab hold,” her husband yelled. He reached back with one arm as they headed, inevitably downward into the valley, but the car swerved and she was thrown from his grasp. As she struggled to regain her balance, they bounded across the railroad tracks, sped past steel workers’ row houses, and skidded beyond the Ohio and Chesapeake railcars loaded with newly-milled girders.
Early risers, up at dawn, who spotted the car, had plunged the town into such a flurry phone lines were as pregnant with the news as the mother about to give birth.
“We saw them.” “The Mister and Missus.” “Flew down the hill.” “The baby is about to be born.” “At last!” “An heir for Amory Lane!”
By the time they raced up the hospital’s circular driveway and screeched to a halt, the scene was already helter-skelter. Nurses, orderlies, and admitting personnel scurried around in the icy early morning mist, anxiously awaiting their patient.
As the sky began to lighten, the Head of the Ladies Auxiliary, a squarely-built matron, elbowed her way through the crowd, straightened her black, feathered fedora, and opened the sedan’s back door with a composed, “Greetings, and welcome.”
Sprawled across the backseat, her coat thrown open, her navy-blue maternity dress revealing a thigh, her hat flung somewhere, Bayla extended one leg in a futile search for solid ground beneath her navy-blue oxford. The unlikely possibility that she would meet with success spurred two nurses to reach into the car and pull. A third rushed around the other side and pushed. An orderly raced over with a hospital bed and breathlessly cranked it upwards to meet the patient’s buttocks. The moment she settled, an excruciating pain seared through her and she erupted with a three-octave roar. Like infantry on the run, they whooshed her beyond the doors, down a long corridor into a harshly-lit room where she labored long and hard.
“Grab the bed posts,” a nurse commanded. “Push. Push.”
Bayla moaned and groaned. She tore at the sheets, clutched the pillow and pounded the wall behind her.
“Make believe you’re a dive bomber in the war,” the nurse ordered. “Get those Germans. Push for France. For England. Push again.”
“I can’t. I can’t.”
“You must. You’re having a baby.”
She drew in a deep, slow inhalation, then a long rasping, “I’ll get you for this, you bastard.”
The nurse laughed. “Once the baby is in your arms, you’ll forget all this.”
After some thirty-six hours, on January 25, 1941, the doctor entered Bayla Rothchild’s uterus with cranial forceps to deliver an eight-pound, five-ounce baby girl.
Her husband slept in the waiting room two nights in a row, praised her strength and courage and did his best to overlook how determined she was to ignore him. He knew the birth of their child had little to do with what she wanted most in the world.
She and her husband had never talked about a baby. They had talked about her career. All she ever wanted was to sing. Not measly and high-pitched, but a deep, soulful sound is what she always imagined for herself. Luckily she had grown into a tall, heavyset, young woman whose square jaw and wide cheekbones produced a singing voice that perfectly fit her expectations. Singing was her prize, her gift, her joy, her self-worth, her fatal flaw, her passion, her dream. Her promise to herself. And in its place ─ motherhood. As if that were the best she could do.
When she opened her eyes she was on a hard steel gurney in a cold, dark place that echoed its own silence. Her body was limp. Her insides felt so stretched, she might as well have squeezed the town’s public library building from between her legs.
A slab of light shot into the dark.
“You’re in recovery, dear. Time to tinkle.” The nurse pushed an icy metal bed pan under her bottom. “Be a good girl now,” she said, and turned on a faucet. She waited, turned the faucet off and disappeared, taking the light with her.
Certain nothing would ever again go in or out of anyplace down there, Bayla tried to inch herself off the thing, but the shrill clang, when it struck the floor startled her, like a fitful awakening. What would she do with a child? “Love it and care for it,” her husband had said. But maternal love, how and where would she find it? She was frightened to be a mother, frightened she might treat the child the way her mother had treated her. Where were the guarantees for such things never happening?
“Childhood,” she said aloud, as if she’d had one.
She could still picture men selling apples for pennies during the Depression, and hear her mother telling her to quit school, the one place she felt like somebody. She was fourteen years old, her second year at New York City’s Hebrew Technical School for Girls. When she objected, “They should take a meshugeneh from the asylum and put you in his place,” her mother yelled, called her a dumbkopf. Who else could support them in their two-room, third floor walk-up, on 236 East 89th Street, a toilet down the hall, shared with four other families? Didn’t she realize an einhoreh, an evil eye, was interfering in their lives, jeering at what little they had? Arthritis forced her mother to give up the millinery shop on Rivington Street where she sewed hats for fancy ladies. She sewed now at home from a wheelchair donated by the Hebrew Immigration Aid Society. Piecework, that paid barely enough to put food on the table. Her father, who held her as no father ever held or loved a child, had kissed her good night, and walked out. She was seven years old.
I am looking for my husband, Yosef Yosefa Szabo, ironworker, 36 years old, small, dark mole on right brow. He left me with our young daughter. Whoever sees or knows of him take mercy on us. Words dictated by her mother, written in Bayla’s childish hand on a scrap of paper, sat for weeks on the kitchen counter. But it was so shameful to admit, “You can’t send it,” her mother said. She meant to the Forverts, The Jewish Daily Forward, the column that reported runaway men. She cursed the fates instead, adding hours to her work pinning, cutting, and sewing under a dim bulb.
By the time Bayla was fifteen, with one year left to graduate, she knocked on doors after school in search of work: “I saw your ad…. I’m experienced in…” “I’ll be the best….” Back home, she’d gather her dolls from the fire escape outside the kitchen window, where she had placed them each morning for fresh air and sunshine, dolls she’d fabricated from old socks, embroidered their faces, sewed their outfits from her mother’s remnants. At bedtime, she’d lay them on the cot where she slept too close to her mother and sing them the song of Hungarian girls’ names that her father had taught: “Arish, Bidi, Shari, Marishki, Rosalli, Ella, Bella, Utzi, Carolina.”
When the day came to tell the principal that she’d found a job sewing on a factory floor, she walked slow and begrudging along the gray corridors. At the large double doors that would no longer welcome her each morning, she inhaled the scent of peeling paint, leaned forward, and closed her eyes. The slightest push would not lead to her future, as her mother had said, but to the end of her life. Never again would a teacher commend her smocking and embroidery, her grasp of a Willa Cather novel or an Edna St. Vincent Millay poem. Never again would she jump Double Dutch at recess, or have her music teacher praise her singing. Like stuffing a suitcase, she packed inside herself everything she could about her years at school. She had become not a seamstress, the fancy word on the “wanted” sign outside Goldmacher’s Uniforms, in the garment district, on Tenth Avenue and 33rd Street, but an operator. Surrounded by what seemed hundreds of girls like herself whose parents came in shiploads to the land of milk and honey. All of them sewing outfits that turned people into what they did: assembly-line workers, prisoners, zookeepers, garbage men. Et va zoh. This is how it must be, she heard her father say in Hungarian. Not wanting to disappoint him even then, she brushed away tears with her forearm, bit her lip, and walked into the harsh glare of the city’s streets. The time reserved for her growing up had fizzled like chicken fat in a heated fry pan. It was winter, 1930.
Bayla longed for her past to leave her in peace. Instead it bullied and tormented her, as if her life weren’t made up of new events, but only old ones lining up for another turn. How could she care for and nourish a newborn when her own childhood was as alive as the baby she had not yet held in her arms?
Where was her child? What had the doctor pulled out of her? Maybe she had delivered a baby with too many arms and legs, or not enough fingers and toes. She remembered a girl in elementary school who wore a normal shoe on one foot and a monstrous, heavy black one on the other. Perhaps her daughter would end up with the same, or worse. Much worse.
“Nurse,” Bayla shouted. “Nurse. Nurse.”
She tried to sit up, but everything whirled around her. She eased back onto the gurney as years of hopes and expectations slipped from her grasp. After months of rehearsing for her debut, perfecting her songs, her destiny, once her own, would be as colorless and ordinary as Pittsmill’s forever-cloudy skies. Would being a mother help her forget everything that motherhood had caused her to give up?
When Bayla next opened her eyes it was to a yellow cotton quilt, framed pictures, fresh, white towels, her own bathroom. Those who ministered to the suffering of mothers had moved her secretly at some mysterious hour.
“I prefer the ward,” she had told her husband’s family, but they had insisted on a suite. “Remember who you are, living here, with us, in this town.” The problem was she couldn’t forget. Didn’t she precisely remember when she first arrived that winter’s day, four years ago, when she still believed in her future, and carried few worldly possessions? Twenty-two, a newlywed, her husband at her side. No matter how often he had described it during their courtship, no matter how often her thoughts had lured her to it, she had never seen a Queen Anne Victorian mansion. Much less a house with its own name, Amory Lane, etched on a bronze plaque set into the ground under an ancient maple tree.
If she were a different person, the right words would have lined up in her mouth ready to be spoken at her good fortune. Instead, from the place inside her head that spoke to her when she didn’t want it to, that told her what she didn’t want to hear, the townsfolk were already gossiping. How clumsy and awkward she was, as she glanced with suspicion, or was it disdain, at her new surroundings? They mistook her inexperience for shyness. They described her unworldliness for stupidity. Her lack of education with not wanting to learn, this person who had captured Amory Lane’s most eligible bachelor.
“My family’s going to adore you,” her husband had said and lovingly took her hand, but she had no idea how to prove him right. How long until they realized she didn’t belong? “Now you will become part of Amory Lane, and it will become part of you,” he had said. The thought was as magical as it was damning then, but more so now when they would expect her to be a perfect parent.
Sounds of women in the wards kvetching and puking echoed from down the hall. Since she was a child, no one had to tell her the difference between, “Nobody Knows You When You’re Down and Out,” and “I’m Sitting on Top of The World.” But wasn’t she still one of them? Needy. Wanting. Battling her impoverished childhood. Fighting for what she wanted in life, yet battling the wretched circumstances that brought her into it?
Two nurses in white uniforms bounded into her room. “Here she is, dearie. Support her head. Hold her close,” they giggled and ever so delicately placed a pink package into her arms. A tiny hand freed itself and flailed fiercely. Legs, bound tightly, began to thump erratically. Crooked, open-mouthed yawns, high-pitched squeaks, and tight squints melded into broad, wide-eyed stares, frightening and strangely foreign. She reached for the bottle on the nightstand and gently eased the nipple between the child’s tiny lips, hoping not to douse or suffocate the creature. She observed the tightly-closed eyes, the automatic sucking, the fierce determination for nourishment, and she so woefully ignorant.
When the milk disappeared, she withdrew the bottle with quiet concentration, and caressed the soft, blond fuzz on the infant’s head. Drawn by a bond she never knew existed, she inhaled the child’s delicious scent, allowed the warmth of her little body to enter her own. “My daughter,” she whispered. Then she sang:
“Hush little baby don’t say a word, Mama’s ‘gonna buy you a mocking bird.”
Why this dreadful tug of war? One moment overcome with unfamiliar emotions that pulled her toward the child with its sweet vulnerability. Seconds later, thoughts of forsaking the stage, the spotlight, the applause. What good were lullabies? Maybe there was a way. Why not? Why not? Performing and motherhood. Endure the shame, fingers pointing, tongues wagging that she had a child only to neglect it. To follow selfish pursuits. That she had no respect for her husband and his family’s reputation.
Bayla bent her body toward the newborn as if it were a refuge from the shame of her thoughts. Nurses on the floor deepened their vigil.
“Check on her again.” “She’s terribly silent.” “Morose.”
They had no idea that inside her long silences and blank stares Bayla was weighing her destiny. How had she come so far off course? How tempted? How deceived? Led by what? Back when she knew what she was about, and what she was after, all the talk was about her. And why shouldn’t it be?
“Bring ‘dem melons ova’ here!” “Sing it to me, hot mama!” “Put your sweaty body next to mine.” Such raves she received when she performed, to hear them even now in her hospital bed. Back then men stood in line on Manhattan’s West Side streets. They packed the place to standing room only, and when she appeared in the spotlight, the ruckus and shouts, the yearning for her that night, and for her next appearance and each one after that, confirmed with the regularity of a downbeat in a four-beat bar how much she was loved and desired.