An excerpt from HESTER’S DAUGHTERS
(A contemporary, feminist retelling of The Scarlet Letter)
My mother, Hester Adele Prinsky, burst into the world at precisely 12:06 p.m. on October 29th, 1929, just as the stock market crashed. That day marked the start of the Great Depression, and became known as Black Tuesday, a metaphor she would come to reflect upon several times as her life unfolded.
Her birth was not easy. My grandmother, Emma, labored for two nights and a day until she was nearly dead from exhaustion and the hard work of delivering her stubborn daughter. She did it alone, too, but for the uncertain aid of a young midwife new to her trade who was less encouraging than she might have been.
Some members of the family called Emma a weak woman, but she had a survivor’s strength. She had, after all, lived through the worst thing a mother can be called upon to bear -- the deaths of three of her four children -- and hadn’t she tolerated a tyrannical husband longer than many other women could have done? Who knows what she might have made of herself under different circumstances.
Hester’s father Henry, my grandfather, frightened at the thought of losing the woman who tended his every need, waited impatiently in a corner deli for news of the birth. Pacing the black and white tile floor in front of greasy booths that had emptied by ten o’clock, he spewed invectives.
“Another mouth to feed! Who needs it? Qvetching women, squalling kids! Pheh! Shoulda never married her in the first place. Not like she was a raving beauty or something.”
So disappointed was he when word came at last that he had a daughter, and that mother and child were safe, he cursed both his wife and baby even as the man slicing corned beef behind the glass counter offered him a “Mazel Tov!”
“Mazel Tov, Schmazel tov! Who needs it? Just another damned weight on my back. Useless woman, spreading her legs always at the wrong time!” But what else could
be expected from a man whose own father had begun each day with a prayer on his lips thanking God he was not born a woman?
Years later, Henry liked to say that his third-born daughter was a devil so powerful that she could make the bottom fall out of Wall Street. But Emma, stroking her little girl’s head, said, “Pay no attention to him, Sheina punim! Why, you’re so special there’s a street named after you. It’s called Hester Street. It’s in New York, where many Jews, even some of our lansmen, came to live after the troubles in Russia. What’s more,” she added, “a great book was written about a woman named Hester. She had courage and dignity. I hope you grow up half as brave as that Hester,” Emma told her young daughter. “I would be very proud of you!”
“Ach, from your mouth to God’s ear,” Henry scowled, waving his hand as if to swat a fly from his nose.
Hester, moved by what her mother said, promised to be as special as the woman whose name she bore, the woman upon whose breast The Scarlet Letter had been emblazoned.
Emma and Henry were immigrants, her father from a shtetl near Kiev, her mother from Odessa in the Ukraine. Each had made their way to New England by way of Ellis Island, and in Henry’s case, Philadelphia. He was a tailor and furrier whose older brother Sidney had preceded him, first to Philly, then to Boston. Sidney had worked initially delivering for a laundry. Then he moved up to being a presser. Somehow he’d managed to save enough money to move to the suburbs of Boston where, with a friend, he bought a dry cleaning business. Eventually he’d become comfortably middle-class.
Henry, on the other hand, a closet Communist, made a meager living sewing men’s suits, hemming women’s skirts, and mending their minks and fox-pelt collars. Emma, who’d attended school only through sixth grade, had been a bright young woman with dreams, if not fully developed ambitions.
“Oh,” she told her sisters, “I do so long to be out in the world! I want to get on a train and go to Chicago, maybe even farther! Don’t you ever just want to go somewhere, anywhere? Is it only me who wants to be somebody?”
Instead, because the longings of girls were considered frivolous and irresponsible when she was young, she became a lonely homemaker, and ultimately an eternally grieving mother. For by the time Hester was five she had become Emma’s and Henry’s only child, her two older sisters having succumbed to a sudden, terrible influenza outbreak that rolled swiftly through their school pulling children under like a riptide.
Some years after Emma nearly went mad with grief at the loss of her two daughters, she bore a son named Paul. “At last I have something to live for,” she whispered to Sidney’s wife, out of Hester’s hearing. “At last, I’ve made Henry happy. Who doesn’t want a son? It’s a mitzvah!”
Paul grew to be a lively boy, full of mischief, and Emma’s devotion to him knew no bounds. She played with him for hours, sat by his bed without respite when he was sick, knit him tweed sweaters and argyle socks, held him in her lap till he was nearly out of short pants, and nearly always yielded to his demands. No one minded because he was the only one who could make Emma laugh or dance.
As his bar mitzvah approached, he teased his mother mercilessly. “Come, my shaina mamela,” he said, lifting Emma from her chair, his dark eyes forming crescent moons of mirth. “Dance with me, my sweet Mama, now that I’m a man!” And Emma twirled around the living room with her beloved son, daintily holding the corner of her apron as if it were a satin gown, and her sturdy, lace-up shoes Cinderella’s own glass slippers.
When Paul perished in the Korean War at the age of seventeen, Emma’s heart stopped beating too. Although she existed for another seventeen years, her soul was dead. Her face became frail and tragic so that it seemed she would crumble if anyone touched her sallow, sunken cheeks. She sat by her window in Newton for hours, a shell of a woman, looking out upon a vacant world, sitting shiva into eternity.
It pained Hester deeply that her presence wasn’t enough to rescue Emma from her tomb of despair. She began to fear that she might end her days like her sad, distracted mother, for she had intuited that such a life of service to husband and children was a kind of passive suicide. Still, when Henry said she must stay home after high school to work and care for her mother she acquiesced. There seemed no viable alternative.
Then something happened that changed everything, something so huge and dramatic, something so unimaginable in Hester’s world that the question of her remaining at home was rendered mute.
Hester had become pregnant.
Henry, enraged nearly to the point of physical violence, threw Hester out of the house, shouting, “Slut! Shiksa!” Shaking clenched fists at her, he screamed, “There are no whores in my house, under my roof! As far as I’m concerned, you are dead!” In one furious motion he tore his coat sleeve from its seam while Emma, clutching her breast as if she were having a fatal heart attack, begged hysterically, “Stop! Stop! Henry, you’re killing me!”
Ten years later, Hester became pregnant again. I am the child of that pregnancy.
My name is Pearl. I was named in memory of my uncle Paul. Hester chose my name because I was a love child and because she thought of me as the proverbial pearl of great price. The biblical reference seemed especially apt under the circumstances. Like my own daughter, Aviva, I grew up with an absent father, but I came to love him deeply before he died.
Aviva is my beloved “café au lait.” Her African father, Elson, was an extraordinary man who left this world far too young, before he’d had a chance to truly make his mark on the world. Aviva has only vague memories of him because he died when she was very small, but her memories, like mine, are warm, happy ones.
Aviva is like Hester, and like Emma might have been had she been born in a different time and milieu. I hope I am like them too, especially Hester. She is so strongly spirited that some might say she is prideful. The way I see it, that’s a worthwhile legacy and a true gift.
Elayne Clift, a Vermont Humanities Council Scholar, is a writer, journalist and lecturer whose work has appeared internationally. Her creative work includes poetry, short fiction, memoir and creative non-fiction. This is her first novel. www.elayneclift.com