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Authors: Ilene Beckerman

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BOOK: The Smartest Woman I Know
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I should eat a pig? If I was starving, I’d stay starving.

Ettie bought me a Jewish star necklace as a confirmation present. Two weeks later the clasp broke and I lost the necklace.

When I told Ettie I had lost the necklace, I started crying. “
Maideleh
,” she said, “don’t cry about such a thing. It’s not your fault. Nothing is your fault. Save your tears. There’ll be time for tears when you’re older.”

If I wanted something from Ettie, the best way to get it was to let her think it had something to do with being Jewish. That’s how I had my ears pierced. May 14, 1948, the day that Israel became a state, gave me a perfect opportunity.

Me
:
Ettie, I’m so happy Israel has become a state. So can you take me to get my ears pierced?
Ettie
:     
So one thing has to do with the other, tell me? And who do you think you are anyway, a gypsy?
Me
:
Please?
Ettie
:
People will think you’re Italian.
Me
:
Please, Please?
Ettie
:
People will think you just got off the boat.
Me
:
Ettie, please, all my friends are doing it.
Ettie
:
So all your friends are jumping in the lake, you’re going to?
Me
:
Please!!!!!!
Ettie
:
You want a hole in your ear? Mr. Goldberg will say you have a hole in your head.
Me
:
Please, please, please, please! P L E A S E !!!!!!!!
Ettie
:
Putting holes in your ears will make you happy?
Me
:
Oh, yes, Ettie. For Israel. I’ll never ask for another thing.
Ettie
:
Bist mesliugeh
. Okay. For Israel. Something to celebrate! Okay, we’ll call the doctor. But don’t let Mr. Goldberg ever know.

One time I had to write a paper in a high school English class about who I saw when I looked in the mirror. I asked Ettie, “So who do you see when you look in the mirror?”

“Who do you think I see,” she said, “Lana Turner? I see a worried Jewish woman.”

Being Jewish was not the first thing I thought about when I looked in the mirror. What I saw was a teenage girl with glasses, braces on her teeth, Tangee on her lips, wearing her first bra, pink, 32AA.

I was growing older and changing. Ettie was growing old, but she couldn’t change.

L
OVE

W
HEN I WAS FOURTEEN, I fell madly in love with Mario, the delivery boy for Jesse’s Kosher Butcher on Third Avenue. He had his own bicycle. He delivered chickens to Ettie every Friday morning.

But my romance never had a chance. I knew that if Ettie ever found out I was madly in love with the butcher’s delivery boy who wore a cross around his neck, she’d give up chicken and then kill herself.

Ettie’s worst fear was that Tootsie or I would become pregnant—by an Italian. Her third cousin Ida’s daughter Rachel eloped with an Italian boy named Tony and Ida never heard from her daughter again.

Ettie once caught me kissing a date behind the stacks of Sunday newspapers that were stored in the downstairs hallway.

She told my date that he should say good-bye and go home to his mother. She told me: “Keep going the way you’re going, young lady, and you’re going to get in big trouble and ruin your life and have to leave the country like Ingrid Bergman. Even worse, I’ll tell Mr. Goldberg! I know about these things. First comes holding hands, then the kiss, then a lot of kisses and the touching, and before you know it, off come the clothes. Then things happen you don’t want to know.”

Big Scandal: Movie star Ingrid Bergman, married and a mother, has affair with Italian director Rossellini, gets pregnant, is denounced on the floor of the U.S. Senate, and leaves country in shame.

“Oh, Ettie, weren’t you ever young? Weren’t you ever in love?” I asked her.

“What do you think,” she answered. “I was always an old lady by the cash register? Just a while ago, I had a dream. Gregory Peck, a big movie star, calls me up. He wants I should go out with him Friday night.”

“On Shabbat?” I say.

“But it’s Gregory Peck and I always admire tall, dark, and handsome men like Robert Taylor, so I say yes.

“Friday night, he brings me a corsage and we go dancing. Then he asks me to go steady so I don’t tell him about Mr. Goldberg.

“Then I woke up because I could smell the soup burning.”

So God, you made us dream so we’d have something else to laugh and cry about?

The only boy Tootsie ever dated was that boy from Westchester, even after they had each found out the other one had no money.

One day I got home from school early and surprised Tootsie and the boy on the couch. I saw her pulling down her shirt. But I could still tell her bra wasn’t hooked.

The boy gave me a look. He didn’t like me either.

Sex played no part in Ettie’s life. She had three grown children. That was enough with under the covers. What she and Mr. Goldberg did in bed now was he snored and she worried.

But one night as I passed her bedroom door, I overheard her: “Oy, oy, oy. It hurts. I can’t breathe. Oy, oy, oy. I’ll have to wash and iron the sheets again.”

Mr. Goldberg, put your clothes on. Where do you think you are?

BOOK: The Smartest Woman I Know
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