Until she went nearly blind, my mother hated the phone. She preferred the expansiveness of paper, the ability to scrawl in pen over a blank sheet and hear only her own scratching. No one to interrupt. She wrote thousands of letters over her lifetime, always in the same looping script. She never edited her letters. Every time I opened one I had to sit on my hands to keep from crossing out florid language and exaggerations. It was in a letter that she told me she would visit me in Berkeley and fly on a plane for the first time. She was then in her mid-eighties.
That was 1968. The War in Vietnam was on, the Black Panthers had formed in nearby Oakland. Telegraph Avenue was packed with people of all colors wearing all colors, playing protest songs on their guitars, sweating in the sun and shivering in the fog. But my husband Gregg and I were far from the center of the action.
We lived then and still live now in the Berkeley hills, nestled next to professors and doctors with a view of San Francisco from our dining room window. Gregg ventures downtown a few times a week. He is a urologist, a doctor of men. Sometimes, he looks at me like he couldn’t imagine the organs I possess.
My mother visited me only once before we moved her out to Berkeley permanently. It was becoming more and more apparent that she could not, with her increasing blindness and her come-and-go memory, take care of herself.
“I don’t know why you insist on putting me away like this,” my mother said, when we settled her into a nursing home five miles from our house. “I could have stayed in New York.”
“You’re going to like it here,” I said, putting her bags down in her new room.
My mother turned around in a circle and sniffed. I admired her dexterity. She still wore black patent leather shoes with a slight heel. Her once red hair had softened to grey, but her eyes were as bright as ever.
“What is that smell?” she said.
“Smell?” I sniffed, caught nothing.
“Ah,” she said, folding her hands in front of her stomach. “It’s Greggory. Your husband is here.”
When I interviewed Susan Herschel several months after my mother moved to Berkeley, she struck me as a tad innocent for a PhD candidate. She wore her hair in two bright purple barrettes and her sweater buttoned up to the top. I needed someone, preferably a graduate student, to sit with my mother and help her write. But more importantly, I needed someone to fawn over her. Without admirers, my mother was more unpleasant than usual. In her interview, Susan said that she was writing a paper not on my mother, as was usually the case, but on another sweatshop-worker-turned-writer named Rose Cohen.
“Who?” I said.
“Rose Cohen, born Rahel Gollup,” said Susan. “I think Esther knew her.”
“I don’t recall that name.”
“It’s been hard to research her. No one knows exactly how or when she died. But Esther wrote a story inspired by Cohen that sort of gives a clue.”
“Love Over Water.”
I knew the one. That story had been particularly melodramatic. Though, all my mother’s writing was maudlin. “At the end of the story,” Susan went on, “Rivka, the character based on Rose Cohen, jumps off a bridge.”
“How sad,” I said. I picked at the eczema around my lips, a childhood condition that had reappeared in my old age.
“I was hoping your mother could tell me if it’s true,” said Susan. “I’d like to sort out fact from fiction.”
I stared at Susan. She reminded me of myself at that age, convinced there was such thing as truth. It was endearing.
“You could certainly ask her about this woman,” I said. “She may remember your Rose Cohen. My mother surprises me all the time.”
Susan accepted the position. She would be the latest addition to a long list of graduate students I’d hired over the years to butter my mother up. We worked out the terms of the arrangement. When Susan was gone, I called Gregg at his office. He picked up after the first ring.
“Can you pick up a book for me from the library?” I said.
“Of course,” he said. “Title?”
“Rose Cohen is the author. I’m not sure what she’s written, but check out whatever they have.” I heard him scribbling on a piece of paper. He always wrote with the noisiest pencils.
“Interview go okay?” he asked.
“Fine. We’ve got a stopper for another few months.”
“Got to feed the dragon.”
“Darling,” I said, in my mother-weary tone.
When I was younger, my mother called me Syndrila, a Yiddish version of Cinderella, because I was born with yellow hair. Until I was five, I lived with my mother. First it was with my father in the Bronx and then in San Francisco after my mother decided the bonds of marriage were chafing. Everything was wet and urgent in San Francisco. The curtains reeked of mildew; the boarding house had mice in its walls. In San Francisco, the past disappeared. There was no pushy Jewish family, no Arthur, my father. I came to understand that there was rarely ever a before with my mother; only immediacy, only demands. The door to our little room in the boarding house always rang with knocks. It was usually our stout neighbor, who was convinced I’d been left alone without any food.
Sometimes, this was true. Living with my mother was a failed experiment. Even she agreed. She sent me back to my father after a few months.
In the beginning, she wrote me letters once a week.
How are you? Tell me everything.
Your loving mother
It was in my father’s voice that I first heard these letters, in our Bronx apartment on Lenox Ave.
“How are you, Leah?” he would ask, looking up from my mother’s scrawl.
I sat on the couch, hands folded on my lap. I heard children playing in the street, their Italian and Yiddish thrown back and forth. My father saw me looking out the window.
“I’m fine, papa,” I said.
“What would you like to say to your mother?” He picked up his pen and paused before writing. Something my mother would never do: pause.
“I have a new dress, mama.”
“And?” My father’s pen hovered inches from the page, his nose a straight line, catching the light.
“I love you, mama.”
My father, a good if snobbish and unemotional man, was at the time suffering under guilt about his failed marriage to my mother. The root of the problem, he believed, was that it’d not been a legal marriage. Esther had swindled him into agreeing to only a religious ceremony.
“Love is bond enough,” she had said. They were married at the synagogue on Eldridge Street, in that grand and cavernous sanctuary where light filtered in through stained glass windows. No amount of stone could keep out the raucous street; the sound of hawkers and rattling carts and the smells of fish and pickled cabbage wafted into my parents’ ceremony.
In the beginning, Esther wrote my father long, dramatic letters about her love for him. I have them all now, in boxes. They begin:
My darling angel friend,
My father, who died in his sixties from mouth cancer, kept every single one. My mother, in true Esther fashion, destroyed every letter he wrote to her except his first. A story with only a beginning.
“The past is past, Syndy,” my mother said when I asked her where his letters had gone.
“Your mother and truth have not spent much time in the same room,” my father said. When my mother returned from San Francisco, penniless and dejected, my father didn’t spend much time in the same room with her either. I lived with my father but spent every Saturday with Esther. Esther’s apartment was covered in shawls. Books were scattered on various surfaces, cracked open at the spines like split fruit. She had not purchased any of these books, preferring to borrow them from friends or steal them from acquaintances. She loved nothing more than sneaking a new volume off a shelf and into her generous purse.
“Knowledge should be free,” she liked to say.
When I helped my mother pack up her last apartment in New York, just before I moved her to California in 1968, I tried to gather her papers into some semblance of order.
“Think of your archive,” I said. “People will want to read your letters. I don’t know why you insist on erasing—”
My mother pushed the box I had been filling with her papers to the floor. The air danced with leaves of thin typewriter sheets and yellow notebook pages.
“Make it up, Leah,” she said. She threw her hands above her head. “I don’t care what they think.”
I bristled at my name; she rarely used my real one. But I knew what she said wasn’t true. She cared enormously what people thought. Why else had she written an autobiography that was mostly lies?
“I could only find one Rose Cohen title,” said Gregg when he came back from campus that evening. He removed his raincoat before coming into the kitchen, then stepped neatly out of his shoes and left them on the mat. He is a man of consistency. My Greggory would never surprise me, but he would also never leave. “Just Out of the Shadow.”
I took the volume he handed me, flipped automatically to the publisher’s page: Doran, 1918. Rose Cohen had beaten my mother to a book by two years.
I was born in a small Russian village, it began. I skimmed the first paragraph, my heart skipping at the urgency of it. Something I’d always felt in Esther’s writing, too.
“Thank you,” I said.
After dinner, I retreated to my study and pulled out Rose Cohen’s book. I read into the night, getting up only once to reheat my tea. She was quick, Rose Cohen. Smart and self-aware. Whoever this Susan Herschel was, she had struck gold.
It was past midnight when I finished and, too awake to think of sleep, I found my copy of Esther’s “Love Over Water,” the story supposedly based on Rose Cohen’s life. It was in the 1929 edition of The Century Magazine. I remembered the launch party my mother had dragged me to. I was fifteen, and at my accelerated pace, I was about to graduate high school. My mother drank too much at the party and flirted with the editor, a pudgy gentile with round glasses that glinted in the light.
I never knew I’d have to tear myself into pieces to write, to pour myself out at their feet.
Rivka, Esther’s protagonist in “Love Over Water,” gave voice to the anguish I’d witnessed my mother descend into time and again. In the story, Rivka has an affair with an older, non-Jewish man after the huge success of her novel. This man drinks in her stories, and Rivka, distraught and empty by the end of the story, jumps off a bridge.
I cannot live if I cannot write. And I cannot write. I have emptied myself of every last drop.
Nothing left for me to drink. No words left for me to say.
“My God, what an ending!” said the round editor. He had spotted my mother and me and was making his way through the crowded room toward us.
“I’m glad you liked it,” my mother said.
“However did you come up with it?” asked the editor.
“Just my wild little brain,” she said. The editor chuckled and winked. I saw his hand grasp my mother’s backside and rub. Just once, and then he left. Esther leaned back into the shelf of leather-bound books behind us and slipped one from the row. I saw it disappear into her shawl.
To say that the only time I lived with my mother was in San Francisco is not strictly true. After I graduated college, my mother and I shared an apartment in the East Village. She was impoverished again after poorly investing the small fortune from the movie rights to her first novel, and she needed to live somewhere cheap. I was living on a copy-editor’s meager salary, so we shared a desire to live sparsely. But I was the one with an income. More than once I paid the rent for both our shares.
“Syndrila, I must write,” she’d said the first month she couldn’t make rent.
She sat on the couch wrapped in a shawl. I cleared the mugs of weak tea that dotted a path from the couch to our tiny kitchen. Despite my constant war with her messiness and the fact that I was often paying her way, the year we lived together was one of the happiest in our relationship. There were many nights I came home from my job at the newspaper and my mother would have dinner ready for us. Eggs were her specialty, but sometimes she would buy a bit of beef if she’d sold an article. The sale would put her in a good mood, and she allowed herself to pause her reading and typing long enough to make a stew. If we’d had a little brandy to drink, Esther (she was Esther when I loved her, mother when I didn’t) would bring out a recently finished story and beg me to edit, flattering my skill with grammar, my English-first tongue. It’d been that way for a long time. Ever since I was old enough to read, Esther would sit me down at the kitchen table and beg me to lend her my words.
“You don’t know your wealth, Syndrila,” she would say, brushing out my hair while I sat with her pages in front of me. “I had to pay the neighbor girl to let me do her homework. That was how I learned to read.”
I marveled at my mother. Each time the universe rewarded her dogged work with another book contract or short story published in a journal or magazine, I reveled in her success as much as she did. This was the woman who grew up in a dingy fifth-floor walk-up, lighting candles only on Friday nights to save the wax. She was supposed to spend her days bent over the cuffs of women’s blouses and leave the reading and writing to the men. But she fled home in her late teens, causing a rift in her family that was never repaired.
In our East Village apartment, after putting her off as long as I could, I would always cave in and accept her sheets of paper and her red pencil (Esther never consented to edits in pen). She would watch me closely while I worked, matching her expressions to mine, pouring each of us the tiniest amount of her precious brandy.
“The words were like candles in my mind, each one illuminating a path forward out of the nightmare of my life,” I read aloud, snorting. Something I would never do without the influence of brandy: snort. “Will I never live to see you write a simple sentence?”
Leaning toward my face, Esther laughed, too. “You’re right, you’re right,” she said.
“Stopping at forward would do just as well,” I said. I marked the paper.
Esther pulled another scarf around her shoulders. I resisted the urge to fix her hair. Strands of it fell out of her bun, giving her the appearance of someone who had just run through a wind storm.
“You are the true writer, Syndrila,” she said. “You make me shine.”
As always when the edits were fresh out of my pencil, she accepted the changes gladly. We bent our heads together over the worn tablecloth and I felt the thrill of being part of her, as if I had never left the warmth of her body. This was our ideal state, conspiring over her words when they were raw, when she was in desperate need of encouragement.
But, inevitably, after the intense closeness of our editing sessions, Esther would reverse my red pencil changes. I might wake up days later to the sound of her clattering around our parlor, having burned her oatmeal and lost track of her most recent revisions.
“You’re the idiot who made me change so many words,” she would shout, waving a spoon at me. “And now I cannot remember the original.”
I would hurry past her to put out whatever small fire she’d started in the kitchen, throw on my clothes and slam the door on my way out. Our fights could last for days. When I left her at the end of the year to move in with a friend uptown, we were in the middle of yet another argument. She went into her room and locked her door just as I was carrying out my last suitcase. She wouldn’t open it to say goodbye.
“Good riddance,” she moaned through the door. “Everyone leaves me in the end.”
“Grow up,” I said. “And don’t send me anything to edit ever again.”
Of course, she did. She came back with desperation written all over her broad face, her blouse lousy with cooking stains.
“Dearest,” she said, her eyes filling with tears. I always let her back in. I took the pages from her hands and traced my fingers over her words, trying to make them mine.
When Gregg and I first moved in together, it was into a small house in New Jersey. I was working for an academic publishing company at the time, and Gregg was a resident at Newark General. He and Esther met a few times, and at first Esther had been polite, even flattering towards him. But during those first few meetings, my mother was still bright with the publication of her autobiography, the book that had pulled her out of the eighteen-year silence. When the book didn’t sell as well as her others, she turned sour. It was during that sour spell that I came home from work one night to find her going through my kitchen drawers.
“Mother?” I said. She jumped and squinted at me. Her cataracts were just beginning to blur her vision.
“I’m looking for something,” she said, and she returned to the silverware drawer, rattling the spoons.
“Clearly,” I said. “I gave you the keys for emergencies.”
Esther slammed the drawer and spun around to face me. “You edited my last story,” she said. “Where is it?”
I turned away and took off my coat. My fingers were shaking as I undid the buttons. I had not only edited her last story, I had changed it.
“Ever since you married this doctor, your writing has suffered,” Esther said. “All you can think about is washing machines and silverware. Your last edits were garbage. I need the original.”
I pushed past her.
“Where are you going?” she called. I didn’t answer, so she followed me. She came into my study just as I was going through my files. When I pulled her story from the drawer, Esther held out her hand for it. It was a story about a woman who runs away from her husband and moves to San Francisco, only to return months later, sorry and dejected.
“What didn’t you like about my edits?” I asked, holding onto the pages.
“You added another character. You made it pathetic.”
“Not just a character, Esther. Who did I add?”
“All right!” she said. “You’ve never forgiven me for leaving you with your father.”
“That’s not what this is about,” I said. “You wrote me out of your autobiography. I don’t exist in the narrative of your life.”
“So, you sabotaged my story?” said Esther.
“I didn’t sabotage anything. I wrote the truth.”
I heard Gregg’s footsteps in the front hall, heard him call for me.
“Give me my story,” Esther said.
“I let you have your way with the book, but the erasure stops here.”
“You want me to tell you what I really think?” Esther knocked over my desk chair. “You’re afraid of being lonely. That’s why you married the doctor. You’re pathetic.”
“Unbelievable,” I said. I could see Gregg in the hall, silhouetted behind her.
“And you’re trying to rescue me from my loneliness. Well, I don’t need your checks and your graduate students. I like being lonely. I make art of being lonely.”
Gregg came into the room. “Esther,” he said, warningly.
“What?” she said, spinning to face him. I thought she would hit him, then. Instead, she spat at his feet.
“That’s enough,” said Gregg. “You can’t talk to Leah like that.” He put a hand on her shoulder to steer her out, but Esther shook him off and grabbed her story from my hands.
“I will write what I want,” she said. Her face was inches from my own. I could smell her face cream, which always reminded me of oatmeal and tea. “My life is my story.”
Gregg tugged her away, and I collapsed at my desk.
My shoes squeaked on the linoleum floor when I arrived in the lobby of Hebrew Senior Life. I greeted the nurses, and waved at the few residents who had enough of their wits left to remember me. At the door to Esther’s room, I knocked.
“Yes?” It wasn’t my mother’s voice, but Susan’s.
I opened the door to find her and my mother sitting by the window. Susan had a pen and paper on her lap. Pink barrettes this time. Esther was wrapped in a blanket, her feet propped on a footrest. She was fumbling with her glasses case, her fingers slipping on the clasp.
“We were just starting another story,” said Susan. She got up and pulled another chair to the window.
“Hello, mother,” I said, accepting the chair Susan offered. I kissed Esther on the cheek.
“Don’t let me interrupt,” I said to Susan. Susan looked down at her paper.
“Esther, we were at: All at once, in the middle of the night, the door opened.”
My mother shook her head. “I’m tired,” she said. She turned the glasses case over in her hands, and tried to open the wrong side.
“Here, let me,” I said. I eased the case out of her hands, took out the glasses and handed them to her.
“I used to be so good with my hands,” Esther said. She put the glasses on and looked at the three of us.
“I was a baster, first, in Levi’s shop. Do you know what a baster is?” she said, looking at Susan. Susan shook her head.
“It’s the lowest rung. It’s the girl who gets the cloth from the cutter and stitches the pieces together, rough and fast, so that the man at the sewing machine can go over them.” Esther motioned pushing a piece of cloth through a machine.
“It’s so dim in this place,” she said, gazing around the room. “It’s just like the shops. I used to watch the light from my corner of the room. There was just the one small window, and so much dust and smoke in the air that the light danced and swirled, like it’s doing now.” She waved her hand around, then let it drop onto her lap.
“Esther, do you remember someone named Rose Cohen?” I asked. I heard Susan’s chair scrape closer to us.
“She wrote Out of the Shadow,” said Esther. “I never met her, but I remember her book.”
My heart started beating faster.
“Do you—” Susan started, then cleared her throat. “Do you remember how she died?”
Esther looked up at Susan, confused.
“No, no,” she said.
Susan pushed on. “At the end of the story you wrote about Rose, about Cohen, I mean, you wrote that she jumps off a bridge.”
“Well, yes,” said Esther. “We were all driven to madness.”
“But what actually happened?” I said, cutting Susan off. “Did you make that part up?”
“Syndrila,” said Esther, turning toward me. “It might as well have happened like that. You don’t know what it was like. The shame you felt for writing. Your family deserted you. You couldn’t be married and write. Rose was married, and I’m sure that was torture.”
I looked at Susan and was surprised to find tears in her eyes.
“I have to go to the bathroom,” said Esther.
“I’ll take you,” said Susan, and she helped Esther up. When she returned, Susan was wiping her face on her sleeve. “I was hoping that Esther would say it wasn’t true,” she said, laughing softly. “You know, there’s this awful trope of women writers killing themselves. I didn’t want Rose to be one of them.”
“That’s understandable,” I said. “But thing about Esther is that she doesn’t spend much time in the same room with—”
We heard a crash. Susan reacted first and hurried to the bathroom. I was behind her when she pushed the door open. Esther was lying on her side on the white tiles. Her eyes were closed and there was a gash on her forehead. A line of blood ran into her hair.
“Shit, shit,” I said, bending down and putting my hand over the gash. “Call the nurses!”
I heard Susan’s footsteps hurry down the hall and her shrill voice calling for help. Esther’s eyes fluttered and she mumbled something.
“What?” I said, leaning over her. Her words were slurred, and over the commotion outside, I couldn’t make sense of the sounds she made. Her forehead became slick, and I switched hands, wiping her blood on my pants. “I’m sorry, Esther. I’m so sorry.”
Since Esther died, I’ve started coloring my hair. I’ve noticed, too, that I spend more time looking in the mirror now. My hair is wiry and my skin is almost always dry, erupting into scaly patches of eczema at my joints (hips, knees, elbows). But in all black, I can look distinguished. That is what I am going for, and looking in the mirror, I can almost convince myself I’ve achieved it. Esther’s memorial service will not be large, but there will be some ghosts from the past, and I want to look the part of a once-famous writer’s daughter, whatever that means.
Esther did not die right after the bathroom fall. She recovered, slowly, from the episode. She insisted, even in the urgency of her pain, that she dictate stories from her hospital bed. Susan kept coming until the end. In her last few weeks, Esther returned to a story she was never able to publish. She’d started writing it during her last year in New York, when she was living in a boarding house, a dim place where the hallway sweat with the stench of stewed vegetables and cigarettes. The story was about a deer she’d seen from her window, in the middle of the afternoon.
“She was walking across the street, just like an old woman,” Esther had said when I was in New York, helping her pack up the apartment. She pulled back the drab, grey-and-blue curtains, the same curtains we’d had in out apartment in the Village. She pointed out the window to where the deer had walked. “She was alone for only a minute, and then a group of men surrounded her.”
My mother had hurried out of her apartment to try to scare the doe away from the men. They had ropes and a rifle, in case the situation got out of hand. My mother was yelling and waving her arms.
“She was a harmless creature,” said Esther. “And they wouldn’t even give her a chance.”
I have the story in a box on my bureau. It’s called “The Doe Woman.” My mother re-wrote it several times, changing it each time it came back from a magazine with regrets or, sometimes, unopened. In the story, after its capture, the doe turns into a woman. A rope tied around her half-naked body, the woman beseeches my mother to do something. My mother begs the men to let the woman go. They insist she is a four-legged animal, a wild creature, and they drag her off. The Esther in the story is distraught. The Esther in real life was frenetic.
“It means something, Syndy!” she shouted, as I put her papers into boxes for storage.
“I think it means it was a wild animal,” I said. “They were bringing it upstate, I’m sure.”
“No, no. They should have let her go! Don’t you see? The doe was trapped by those men, and here I am, trapped in this shit hole, with doors upon doors. I can’t even find my glasses to read—”
“Dear?” It was Gregg in the hallway. The memory of my mother and her doe faded away. “We should go.”
I looked at the clock on the wall. It was getting late.
“Coming,” I called. I touched the box of Esther’s stories and imagined a tiny Esther inside. How she would scream at being shut in. I took off the lid and rested it next to the box. I waved as I left the room, and laughed at myself.
Goodbye, Esther, who runs as she writes. Esther, with many names. My dearest, my darling, dear Esther.
“My Dearest” is a work of fiction inspired by the stories of the writers Rose Cohen, Anzia Yezierska, and her daughter, Louise Levitas Henriksen. In my story, I kept Rose Cohen’s name and the title of her memoir, Out of the Shadow, as well as several lines from it. Louise Levitas Henriksen inspired Leah’s character, and Esther is inspired by Anzia Yezierska. The real Anzia Yezierska wrote a fictional story about the mysterious and early death of Rose Cohen, titled “Wild Winter Love,” but the conversation surrounding that story and its later discovery by a PhD student are my own creation. For further reading on the lives of Rose Cohen and Anzia Yezierska, I suggest: Out of the Shadow: A Russian Jewish Girlhood on the Lower East Side by Rose Cohen; Anzia Yezierska: A Writer’s Life, the biography Louise Levitas Henriksen wrote about her mother; and Red Ribbon on a White Horse: My Story, Anzia Yezierska’s memoir, now regarded as fiction.
VIRGINIA MARSHALL is a writer and audio producer in Brooklyn. She is a first year fiction student at Brooklyn College's MFA program and writes and produces Brooklyn Public Library's podcast. Her work can be read/heard in Catapult, The Harvard Review, The Normal School, Cleaver, The Millions, Brevity, WBUR, and more.
Header art: "Disperse" by Derrick Breidenthal.