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 Chapter 1

Rachel and her Mother

Miss Rachel Howe, a sixteen year-old freshman at Radcliffe College, sat in her dormitory room inspecting her left foot in order to locate the source of the pain. Although it was a dark and stormy night, the room was warm and comfortable. Sitting across from her in serene silence was her maximally compatible roommate, Barbara Lane. They had added to the college furniture with a judicious foray into the thrift stores, and Rachel, a small pretty girl with black hair, was now sitting in a red stuffed rocking chair obtained from the Salvation Army. There were prints of Rembrandt portraits on the walls, and a tiny miniature of an Egyptian cat sculpture from the store at the Boston Art Museum was on the mantel. On the inside of the door to the corridor, visible only when the door was closed, were pictures of Albert Einstein and the defeated candidate in the last presidential election, Adlai Stevenson.

     This atmosphere of civilized tranquility was somewhat disturbed by the increasing force of the wind and rain hitting the windows. Since they were old and fitted their frames only loosely, they began to rattle dangerously. Rachel looked questioningly at Barbara, and the other, knowing what she was thinking, replied, "I've never heard of wind and rain actually bursting windows in anything less than a hurricane."

The words were reassuring, but the tone in which they were delivered suggested that this might, indeed, be the first time. Unpleasant as the thought of shards of glass on the floor and water pouring in might be, Rachel was troubled by the thought of something much worse. This was the evening her mother was scheduled to visit, and Rachel was dreadfully afraid that the storm wouldn't deter her. Anyhow, her foot no longer hurt, and she put her shoe back on.                                

     Ten minutes after the appointed time, Barbara said,  "I hope your mother isn't having trouble with the storm."

    "She'll come by train and taxi, and the taxis in Boston are used to this."

    Barbara was a wholesomely pretty blonde with a surprising and alarming insight into people. It was hard for Rachel to keep the right tone and not give anything away. Of course, if her mother did arrive, the game would be up anyway.

     It had nothing to do with being Jewish. Barbara came from an affluent intellectual family which would have regarded anti-Semitism as a form of barbarism. Barbara probably expected Rachel's mother to be a Jewish version of her own mother, quiet, amusing, and, in everyone's opinion, delightful.

     It also had very little to do with money. There was another Jewish scholarship girl in the freshman class whose parents had been penniless refugees. However, while still fairly poor, they were musicians whose ability and charm would soon be rewarded. Rachel's family had come to America well before the rise of Hitler, and had little excuse for having as little money as they did.

     Rachel could easily imagine her mother advising Barbara that she could find some real bargains at the Saturday sale in Filene's basement if she got there a half hour before the doors opened. She was on the point of warning Barbara, but there was still the bare possibility that her mother wouldn't arrive. It would be too bad to let out the truth unnecessarily.

     In the event, a squat wet woman burst in the door, which had been left slightly ajar, in a surprising and alarming way. Mrs. Howe didn't believe in knocking before entering.

     There was a cry which seemed to contain some version of Rachel's name, and then a nearly suffocating hug. Even when Rachel escaped, her mother was still too intent on her to notice that there was another person in the room. Pulling up a straight dormitory chair right next to Rachel, she began,

"I said to your fadder, I said, I gotta go, I gotta go. The rain don't matter, I gotta go, and I almost fell on the steps, and ......."

As she continued without pause, it became clear that Mrs. Howe had accused the taxi driver of cheating, and had refused to tip him. There had apparently been a ruckus right at the front door of the dormitory. Rachel, sinking, could only think that the reality was worse, much worse, than anything she might have imagined. When she looked over at her still not introduced room-mate, she saw that Barbara was laughing.

     It wasn't unpleasant or sardonic, but a full-bodied ho-ho-ho, as if at a particularly good joke told for her benefit. When, finally, Rachel broke through long enough to point out Barbara and try to introduce her, her mother looked with suspicion, as at an intruder. After a brief pause, Mrs. Howe turned away from Barbara and talked about getting her sister's second cousin by marriage, a lawyer, to sue the taxi company.

     Amid the shame and embarrassment, Rachel could still think, at least after a fashion. Part of the problem was her age, just sixteen. After being double-promoted twice, she had ended up at Radcliffe. That was all right. She enjoyed her studies, and, looking a little older than her age, she didn't feel like a misfit. However, the whole facade of cool sophistication crumbled in front of her mother. Rachel felt as if she were ten years old, and she felt like crying.

     Mrs. Howe was gone almost as quickly as she had come, with only a half wave at Barbara. Rachel, collapsed in a chair with her arms over her head, cried out to Barbara, "That horrid little dwarf! She's only a parody of a human being, and she spoils everything I try to do."

"No, no, and no! You're here, and you're getting straight A's. She certainly isn't spoiling that."

 "She made some kind of awful scene downstairs. Everyone must know by now. I've got to leave here."

"Quadruple no. Half the girls here have mothers they don't want to display."

"Yours is lovely."

"She's okay, sure. But nothing much follows from that. You're a better student than I am. That's what counts around here."

"How am I going to face people?"

"Make it a joke. Tell people to shoot on sight if she comes back."

"I guess.”

"As a matter of fact, your mother isn't that bad, just different."

"She was awful! Worse than awful."

"No. It was an amazing display of energy, very narrowly focused."

"And absolutely oblivious to anything but the most trivial aspects of life."

"Most people are like that. They're just too devious to let it show. What's your father like?"

"Very ordinary and rather dull. He's now a parking lot attendant."

That stopped Barbara. Rachel realized that she could deal with strange crazy women better than with parking attendants. Barbara asked, "Does your mother also work?"

"Most of her life she's worked in those awful garment factories, a lot of it hand sewing. Her hands are awful and, in fact, her whole body is deformed. Her eyesight is also shot."

"Really? She didn't seem to see me at first. I wonder if she doesn't have any peripheral vision. Even after you pointed me out, I might have just been a fuzzy pink shape off to the side."

"That's possible. I guess you think I should be more charitable about her."

"Well, she obviously hasn't had our advantages."

"That's an understatement!"

"I can see why you don't want her around much. But I wouldn't just put her in the trash can."

"I guess it would be better if I visit them with some strategy that would get me away after a fairly short time."

"You do have to go from a child-adult relationship to an adult-adult one. The transition may be difficult for both of you."
"You don't seem to be having any problems in that area."

"I've had two older sisters paving the way. I know they had some difficulty."

"Well, I'm the only child. That probably does make it worse."

"Again, for both of you. She certainly didn't stay here long!"

"She just wanted to know if I was going to be a problem of some sort. Once she saw that I was settled, she left. We have no common conversational ground."

"Speaking of mothers, mine believes that there's always some common conversational ground. I wonder if that's true."

"We might share some political opinions, but she'd be very opinionated and scream at anyone who disagreed with her."

"That might not be so good. But I bet there's something that would interest both of you."

One thing about Barbara. It was easy to believe her even when one knew that she was fibbing for one's own good.

     The next morning, before breakfast, Rachel was accosted by Ludmila Igorevna Yezhova, six feet of willowy vibrancy with a head of frizzy orange-yellow hair wild enough to scare a gypsy. She told many conflicting stories about herself, but it was pretty clear that she was Russian. She also seemed to be a parentless refugee. In any case, something called the International Refugee Student Association paid her tuition and living expenses.

     Waving her arms, as if to describe an explosion, Luda said with her faint accent, "I was on the front desk when your mother came by last night. She reminds me of the women one meets in Siberia, small, violent, and fearless."

"She's certainly small and violent. I don't know about the fearlessness."

"Oh, most certainly fearless. The only difference is that the Siberian women are almost completely covered in furs, rather like the beasts of the forests and steppes."

It was turning out to be easy. Rachel found the image amusing, and asked,  "Did ladies like yourself hunt them with spears?"

"You know, I think I rather wanted to. But the local party secretary wouldn't have liked it."

     The only good thing at breakfast was, as usual, the toast and orange marmalade. It wasn't the ordinary sweet marmalade but some bitter English stuff with lots of peels that had a nice bite. Most people ignored the other food, and settled back with coffee. Rachel hadn't caught the coffee habit, but, as she wanted to be sociable, she matched them, cup for cup, with herb tea.

     After the third cup, Rachel headed off for her first class. It was a semi-required 'general education' course which combined odd bits of physics, chemistry, and astronomy. Rachel already knew most of the material, which made it relaxing. However, there were some prep school boys who, having too much social confidence, asked stupid questions. Rachel wished that there was some way of shutting them up, but was consoled by something an older girl, a senior, had told her.

"These idiot boys from New England prep schools gradually find out how unimportant they are at Harvard. They then become quiet and depressed, and often alcoholic."

That was good to know. In any case, after the present class, they wouldn't be in any of the courses that Rachel would be taking.

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