All the way across town, on the electric trolley, my mother and I had argued – at least, what passed for argument between us. For two years, since we moved to Houston, my mother had given her lectures in her best friend Hazel Rosen’s modest living room, which was filled on those occasions with ladies who spoke German and Yiddish and halting English, ladies rich or connected enough to emigrate to America from Europe, though the war wouldn’t start for another five years. My mother’s lectures became impromptu English lessons for the ladies and German lessons for me. It was my job to play recital pieces, from “Lightly Row” to “Amazing Grace” to Bach’s minuets, and later, simple Yiddish songs the women taught me – “Shalom Chaverim,” “O Chanukah, O Chanukah,” “Hevenu Shalom Aleichem.” After years of wandering Texas, chasing my father’s WPA work, the women and their daughters were as close to a real family as I’d had. I’d been proud to do my part.
My mother had high hopes for her lecture at Mrs. Foley’s. It would be a way back into the lectures she’d given before we came to Houston, in Elks and Masons halls in San Angelo and Port Arthur and Abilene. My role at Mrs. Foley’s, my mother said, would be to play my violin while she chatted with Mrs. Foley and the other ladies before her lecture, to set the correct tone of culture and elegance.
I didn’t want to play at Mrs. Foley’s. That week, I had made the mistake of telling my mother this. I had read about Mrs. Foley in the Our Town gossip column of the Houston Chronicle, where she was often noted for her charitable works. Compared to us, Hazel was well off, but I had never encountered wealth like Mrs. Foley’s, and the expectation of doing so made plain to me a feeling I had tried to keep hidden until then, even from myself – that I was ashamed of my mother.
“Real Life,” Cimmaron Review (Issue #212, Summer 2020)