American Born is an incisive memoir of Rachel M. Brownstein’s seemingly quintessential Jewish mother, Reisel Thaler, a resilient and courageous immigrant in New York. Living life as the heroine of her own story, Reisel reminds us how to laugh despite tragedy, find our courage, and be our most unapologetically authentic selves. This month, we’re sharing a short excerpt from the book that imagines what her life was like as a working girl in the 1920's.
Trying to imagine my mother as a young woman on her own in New York in the Roaring Twenties, before she decided to marry and settle with my father on the other side of the brand-new Triborough Bridge, I picture her strolling down a crowded street in midtown on a hot summer day, walking east and north from the West Thirties to eat her lunch in Bryant Park. She is holding a long, flat beige leatherette purse-not yet called “vegan leather”-in one hand and, in the other hand, wrapped up in a brown paper bag, the egg-on- an- onion- roll sandwich she had prepared for herself that morning. Under the little brim of her chic cloche, her keen eyes search for anything or anybody worth a second look.
I imagine her in a long narrow skirt with a slit on one side, her feet in flats but then, on second thought, low heels. The same lines are fashionable again, now. Admiring her youthful elasticity, I find myself annoyed by her jaunty stride-and yes, the contrast with my arthritic progress in telling her story. I am overwhelmed by the limitation that that lithe young woman of years ago unknowingly imposed on her biographer, the gaps in the record, the lack of information about the interesting nine or ten years she spent on her own in New York City, doing piecework in a millinery factory. I turn away as she finishes her sandwich and folds up the waxed paper, putting it in her purse to use again, and leans back on the park bench to get sun on her face-as she never ever would do, for fear of the sun, sixty years later in Florida.
How can I know what it felt like to be Reisel Thaler back then? Why did she say so little that was substantive about that interesting part of her life? Except for mentioning the odd friend she made there-and later lost touch with-she refused to talk about her working life: asked about the place where she had sat sewing hats, she deflected the question and explained that Mr. Gilbert’s place was called The Gildor because his wife was named Dora. I wonder idly whether, aside from the companionship, it was unpleasant work. For some reason-annoyance about my ignorance is a part of it-I am suddenly in a big hurry to finish up her story, to discover what it’s about. Irritated by both of us, I recognize that I’m feeling too much like my mother, who was always in a rush. I know now, as she also came to know too late, when she was old, that this is a bad mistake. So let me try to slow down and take my time.
I close my eyes again to focus on her taking the sun on the park bench in the middle of the city in the middle of the workday, in the crowded green space between Sixth and Fifth Avenues, not far from what they used to call the crossroads of the world, Times Square. Not too many years before my mother came to sit there, there had been a reservoir in the space behind the Public Library: in my childhood, my great-uncle Harry, my mother’s uncle on her mother’s side, who admitted he had voted Republican only once, for Theodore Roosevelt, had talked nostalgically about that beautiful reservoir. In the 1920s, the trees that had been planted to shade the benches were still slender. The young woman who would become my mother was comfortable on her break from work, enjoying the crowded public place and her own temporary anonymity: a working girl without a home or even a room of her own seemed, was, just as good as anyone else in the streets and parks of the big city. Proud of her smarts and her strength and her stylish outfit, proud to be far above Clinton Street on the Jewish Lower East Side, she was excited by all the heterogeneous people, delighted to be on her own and many miles from her too observant aunts and uncles in Mielec, free to jump or run if she wanted, or even to whistle. (Jews didn’t whistle, or so they claimed, but all her life, with a finger hooked into her mouth, my mother could manage a piercing two-note whistle.) She was even free to chew gum, as Americans did.
She was conscious of being only blocks away from the awesome high-ceilinged cathedrals of retail on Fifth Avenue, with their toney names: Lord and Taylor, Best and Company, Saks Fifth Avenue. Rainy days, she might stroll through one or two of the ground floors of those great stores, on her lunch hour, and browse among the lavish displays, maybe even pick up a handbag to stroke the leather and examine the stitching. Contemplating the colorful bottles of scent on a counter, she would be annoyingly reminded of Yussel, her uncertain suitor or maybe a sort of cousin and not a suitor at all, who told her once-she was telling him about a Valentine’s Day gift one of the girls at work had received from her boyfriend-that to give a lady perfume suggested she smelled bad without it. Was he making a bad joke, or did he really believe that? Was he jealous of the boyfriend who bought the girl a gift-as she herself had envied the girl? Was he insisting that Reisel take him quirks and all, or trying to push her away?
Silly to think of him here, on her lunch break in Bryant Park: why was she wasting her time doing that? She squints up at the blue sky, deciding to stay on her bench and look at the people walking past her, singly or in twos and threes, purposefully for the most part and with a midtown dignity. This wasn’t a neighborhood where people actually lived, and the street life was stately rather than revealing: everyone was from somewhere else, passing through the world’s crossroads, putting their best foot forward.
Rachel M. Brownstein is professor emerita of English at Brooklyn College and the Graduate Center, CUNY. She is the author of Becoming a Heroine: Reading about Women in Novels, Tragic Muse: Rachel of the Comédie-Française, and Why Jane Austen?