A little girl in third or fourth grade changed her last name mid-year.  How could that happen?  Barbara, whose stepfather had adopted her, lived in a dark scary back basement apartment in our building.

Because my mother had strict lines of demarcation according to where one lived in that building, that put little Barbara beyond the pale.  A few years later a younger Barbara moved in on the first floor, making them little and big Barbara.  The new title, however, didn't improve Big Barbara's status.

Not only was she the child of divorced parents, (a disgrace!) but also clearly of little substance.  She was NOT Jewish.  That explained our many cultural differences.

I visited once and asked about the crucifix on her wall.  She said my people had killed her god.  I was stunned.  I had never heard of Jesus, Christ, a crucifix, or her god.  I had heard little of mine, as well.  My dad, a free thinker bordering on communist, didn’t believe in religion or god.  Was that why my mother, when she was angry at him, called him a Bolshevik?   We were Jewish, of course, but that was a designation, not a religion.

The next day I began to receive secret hate notes in school.  “Christ-killer!” they said.  Even the Jewish kids took their side, probably not knowing who Christ was either.  “Did you really kill their god?” one asked.  They were trying to balance this incomprehensible argument.

“We’re going to put your braids in cement,” one note threatened.

Terrified, I ran home to my safe grandpa who watched in horror as his beloved nine-year--old experienced this American pogrom.

Barbara and I were never playmates.  Sometimes she dropped in to play our piano.  We made a place for the old upright against the foyer wall, an instrument that moved among the aspiring parents.  A spectacle to watch this piece of furniture heaved and hoisted outside windows and gently secured in one or another’s apartment.  It stayed with us, for my brief study of piano, and remained forever after quiet and untouched.

Barbara had a natural ear.  She would pick out familiar tunes for awhile and then go home.  She could also draw beautifully.  The teachers praised her talent.  In junior high we sometimes walked to school together.  But her clothes were “different,” in some subtle way.  Her mom allowed her to wear penny loafers (no support, my mom said) and even in cold weather she could go without sox.  This must have been because she was not Jewish.

I nagged and begged my mother for such privileges, to no avail.  A mother who loves her child upholds standards.  How else to show one’s love?

She especially denied me the most intriguing pursuit of all.  Barbara could roller skate in a nearby rink, even at night.  Occasionally I was permitted to go with friends on Saturday afternoon.  But the danger that lurked there was SAILORS.

Are mothers always right?  They would have you believe so.  In our senior year a darkness fell on Barbara’s life.  Rarely had we seen each other for the past few years.  I was in the college prep program, segregated from the commercial classes, and oh shame, the automotive repair classes.  I went steady with a “nice Jewish” boy, a state blessed by both sets of parents.  Though I read steamy novels, I either blocked out sexual details or, like the movies, they came to me censored.  (When I read The Grapes of Wrath in college, it was a revelation.  In junior high I must have skipped the hot scenes.)

Of course I knew “bad” girls “went all the way.”  Of course I knew how you made babies.  All of this was totally abstract.  There were no sex ed courses, no anatomy charts.  Since I had no brothers, what did I know?  My boyfriend planned to marry me.  He respected my virtue.

I heard Barbara had dropped out of school.  Why?  She was bright, talented.  I went downstairs and knocked on her basement door.  Had I been there since the historic crucifix visit?  The place was in darkness.  Shades drawn, lights out.  Barbara sat in a rocking chair.  I could scarcely see her.  We made small talk, not touching the dropout subject, and I soon left.

I had just turned sixteen.  I guess I understood dimly she was pregnant.  It was not absorbed.  I guess I knew she had “done” it, but with whom, when?  I never went so far as to imagine her having that baby, whether she would keep it, give it up, go away, marry.  Not a tangible issue entered my mind.

When I closed her door, I closed it totally upon Barbara.  My mother had been right!



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