I knew from my mother’s increasingly embellished bedtime stories that she spent her first year in the United States living in Brooklyn cold-water flats and pacing in acrid subway stations waiting for a train to take her to work. I eagerly anticipated version after version—stories in which Matilde, the self-appointed heroine, endured seasonal cold and intense homesickness, until pneumonia had her quitting night school and staying in bed for a month, feverish and disoriented. In some versions she was inconvenienced; in others, she nearly died. The Hungarian girls she worked with at the watch factory that first year visited with homemade pastries. They had fled their own political conflagration in Budapest three years earlier; Matilde was beginning to watch Castro take over her country. He had come down from the Sierra Maestra Mountains, marching into the center of Havana on January 1, 1959.
“Castro sat with me one time, you know,” she told me, the story worn smooth through repetition. “He sat next to me on a bench at the university and invited me for coffee.”
“What did you do?” I asked, my eyes shining in anticipation each time.
“I had to say no. He had a handgun peeking out from his jacket.”
This odd meeting took place, she said, near the famous staircase at the University of Havana, a wide set of steps that fanned down to the street. My mother always knew how to stage a scene. She had been studying social work at the university over her father’s, Abrahan’s, objections. “La universidad is no place for girls,” he said when she first announced her educational plans beyond finishing the Instituto High School in Havana. He berated Abuela for encouraging Matilde to register for classes. “But if she doesn’t go to school she’ll be a burra like me, sewing until her fingers fall off,” Elisa cried.
While my father was tight-lipped about his past, I grew up in thrall to my mother’s stories, especially the one about the shark-finned yellow Chrysler.
On a stifling August day in 1959, Matilde Alboukrek brought a gift for her friend Violeta’s new baby girl. Matilde could barely tamp down her jealousy—a jealousy that, like her eyes, was verde y claro, green and clear. The feeling lodged in her throat. Matilde had come to the United States to follow a boy and the boy had abandoned her, leaving her alone in a strange country with jealousy and loneliness her only constants.
Now her story soared back into the past, back to Cuba in the early 1950s, to those same university steps close to where Castro had asked her for coffee. It was on those same steps where Matilde first met Manuel, a towering character in her memory. Manuel was the handsome doctor at the university clinic who dressed her wounds when she fell on the steps and scraped her knee. Three weeks later, the stars aligned and there he was again at the Purim Ball of 1954 in Havana’s El Patronato.
There at the ball was the doctor who had dressed her knee. Matilde was wearing a black sleeveless velvet gown that her mother had sewn for her, the neckline studded with tiny rhinestones. It was fated.
They danced all night. Matilde believed in signs and wonders more than she believed in God, so when Manuel left Cuba in 1958 for a residency in New York City, with the idea of eventually becoming a doctor in Israel, Matilde convinced her father that she, too, had to leave the country. “The comunistas are overrunning the university,” she insisted. “They are trying to recruit me to join the party.”
The lovesick Matilde bought herself a ticket to the United States with the money she had saved from her part-time secretarial job with a Zionist organization.
“Why are you here?” Manuel asked her when they met at a diner near Bellevue Hospital in New York.
“There is no future in Cuba,” said Matilde.
“For you or for me?”
Manuel studied his coffee cup. “I told you in Havana I would be going to Israel. I’m a Zionist,” he said.
“So am I.”
“Not like me. You wouldn’t be able to handle being on a kibbutz. You wear too much makeup. You’re terrified of animals. How will you live among dogs and cats and chickens?”
Matilde was forced to rearrange her fairytale. Heartbroken, she tried to make a go of it in Brooklyn without Manuel. She lasted two months. Back in Cuba in 1959, though, she was restless, so she applied for permanent residency in the United States. She returned to New York on July 1, 1959, this time for good.
Her father’s cousins David and Sarah encouraged Matilde to go to Saturday night dances for Jewish singles, but Matilde would never admit she was lonely. She pretended to prefer watching Perry Mason and Lawrence Welk. “Those dances are for chusmas,” unrefined girls with ankle bracelets and bright red toenail polish on the prowl for men of equally questionable social status. The dances in Brooklyn would never rival the Purim Ball of 1954 when she danced with her doctor. That night she had been among the queen’s four attendants—a very high honor for a girl whose father couldn’t afford to buy the title of Queen of the Ball.
It was five years after the Purim Ball and just one month after her return to America that Matilde attended Violeta’s baby shower, all the while brooding that she, too, should have been married by now, with a home of her own and a baby on the way. Before she could work herself into a fury, all-American Connecticut accountant K. Harold Bolton—older, slim, dashing, distinguished—roared into her life driving a shark-finned yellow Chrysler to Violeta’s apartment.
“He’s a caballero, a gentleman,” whispered Violeta. “Y bien educado. And he speaks Spanish.”
“Mucho gusto,” said Harold, bending to kiss Matilde’s hand. He had a deep tan and close-cropped hair—handsome like Harry Belafonte, she thought.
“Igualmente,” said Matilde, charmed. “How do you know Spanish?” “I’ve traveled in Central America.” On their first date, as Matilde sat with her ginger ale across from her dashing new suitor in a Manhattan bar, she folded her hands in her lap so that he wouldn’t notice them shaking.
With sex on hold until marriage, theirs was a whirlwind romance. “Your father took me to everything sports—the Yankees, the Yale Bowl,” my mother told me. She was willing to live with Harold’s sports fandom. He was, after all, an Americano and a Yale graduate.
Six weeks to the day they met, they were engaged.
Their first wedding was a colorless civil ceremony in the city hall of New Haven, Connecticut, in anticipation of the religious ceremony to follow in Havana’s El Patronato. Matilde might have felt flattered to discover that day that Harold had been shaving five years off his age, claiming he was thirty-five so as not to scare his young bride unduly. But this bride wanted a husband who was a kinder, gentler father figure than she’d had in her own father.
Their second wedding took place months later in New York City in the chapel of the Spanish-Portuguese on Central Park West. It stormed the night of that ceremony, the same night my parents set out for their honeymoon. Harold was at the wheel of the yellow Chrysler. “Lightning-proof,” he said of the car to reassure her in the storm. “It’s the rubber tires.”
They drove up Route 17 to the Catskills, the rain a silky waterfall. Matilde removed her slip to wipe condensation from the inside of the windshield. Since there hadn’t been a reception, they stopped at a diner where Matilde ordered chicken croquettes and Harold had a cheeseburger. “We got married a few hours ago!” she announced to the waitress, who put their meal on the house.
They were on their way to Grossinger’s, the all-inclusive Borscht Belt resort, an odd honeymoon destination for this couple. Too much grease-laden Jewish Eastern European food was sure to stir up Matilde’s gallbladder, and Harold was a man who had never associated with the sons of labor union members, men brought up hearing the Bundist politics their fathers broadcast over megaphones. Harold was an aloof Ivy Leaguer who thought nothing of attending his beloved Eli Yale football games when they fell on the High Holidays, or celebrating Christmas with his family around their small silvery-tinsel tree decorated with cobalt blue and red ornaments.
“Your grandparents telephoned every day of our honeymoon,” said my mother, “and on each call, Grandma said she couldn’t stand grubeyuns,” Yiddish for vulgarians. That was who my grandmother, a rabbi’s daughter, imagined populated those all-you-can-eat kosher hotels. The rabbi’s daughter thought of herself as a modern woman who, as soon as she had a kitchen of her own, made pork roasts.
Matilde thought Harold looked sophisticated in his paisley smoking jacket, polishing his decanter to gleaming before he poured himself a scotch in their room. But when he offered his bride a drink, she panicked. “I told you, I never drink,” she said.
Just a sip, he encouraged.
She brought the decanter to her lips. The liquid burned going down her throat and she spat out the rest like poison. Was she afraid then that her new husband would drink to the edge of cruelty like her father?
There was a time when Matilde’s father, my grandfather, lived like a pasha among veiled women and bearded rabbis. He was born in 1903 in Ankara, Turkey, into a wealthy family. Like many of the stories from my maternal side of the family, his was ultimately one of loss and bad luck.
His father and uncle were rabbis. He liked to recall how his nanny and the family’s cook and the maid covered their faces according to Muslim tradition. But in the presence of ten-year-old Abrahan, they smiled unchecked, unveiled. “My nanny never kissed me through her veil,” Abrahan liked to say. “I was the only male that kissed her face.”
After he officially became a man at his bar mitzvah in 1916, all interactions with unveiled women ended. Befitting an observant and rich family, his bar mitzvah was steeped in ritual and lavish in food. He told me he could still taste the tishpeeshti, a sweet Turkish cake drenched in honey. A few years later, his family dispersed—some went east to Palestine; he and the others sailed west to Cuba, where relatives had already settled. Anywhere but Turkey. Anywhere away from a place where Abrahan, as a boy on his way to school, witnessed a Turkish soldier decapitating a young Armenian man. Abuelo told me he hid in the bushes, but could not turn away. He stifled the urge to vomit. He watched with the innocent horror of a child and the innate foreboding of a Jew. When my grandfather wrapped himself in a tallit, a prayer shawl, and wound the leather straps of his tefillin, prayer boxes, around his left arm, and placed the other box on his forehead, he seemed to mourn that young man yet again. I once taped him on a reel-to-reel recorder praying in mournful, Near-Eastern singsong.
I knew those prayers, too, but when I sang along with him he stopped and told me what I was doing was fea, ugly, because I was a girl. Kol isha, the voice of a woman, was thought to be as horribly tempting as the Sirens of Greek mythology.
After Abuelo told me the story about the Armenian boy, I turned it into an English assignment in which we were to write about our families. My friend Mary’s essay related that her Armenian parents were always searching for witnesses to their people’s genocide. She turned away from me as I read about Abuelo’s rich Turkish family. Something very bad had happened to Mary’s people, and in her mind my people were the perpetrators.
“Tell her we are Jews,” Abuelo said, outraged. “Tell her that we left Turkia because we were sure that we were next to be killed.”
With Mary wanting to find witnesses to the Armenian genocide, I convinced her that Abuelo could help. After all, the ultimate violence is not having one’s suffering acknowledged. “Who today remembers the massacre of the Armenian people?” Adolf Hitler asked in 1939. The question is emblazoned on the walls of the United States Holocaust Memorial Museum in Washington, D.C.
Mary chose not to interview Abuelo. I suppose his Turkishness was too much for her, but it was just as well; I was afraid Abuelo might berate her for digging around in the painful history he claimed for himself. Whenever I asked him questions about his life he shouted that I was muy curiosa, and my father’s warning about curiosity and the cat echoed in my mind. Unlike my father, Abuelo made me feel that my inquisitiveness was more than inappropriate; it was dangerous. I liked to think that, more than anything else, my growing detective skills at least amused my father.
Abuelo was the last older Sephardic bachelor in Havana when he met my grandmother, who was the spinsterish age of twenty-eight to his thirty-two. The story goes that he forced a kiss on her in an elevator before their date had officially started.
In their wedding picture she is plump and miserable, while he stares glassy-eyed into the camera, holding a pair of gloves. No one smiles. No one ever smiled in my mother’s family. A year and a week after her wedding, Abuela gave birth to my mother.
Several weeks after my parents’ honeymoon at Grossinger’s, on a shopping excursion with her new mother-in-law to the Edward Malley Company, New Haven’s premier department store, Matilde promptly threw up her egg salad sandwich after they stopped for lunch. “My poor boy,” muttered Grandma Bolton, not for the last time.
Nine months later I was born.
Excerpted from Asylum: A Memoir of Family Secrets. Judy Bolton-Fasman, © 2021. Published by Mandel Vilar Press. Reprinted with permission of the publisher. All rights reserved.
Judy Bolton-Fasman’s work has appeared in The New York Times, The Forward, The Jerusalem Report, and other venues. She is the author of Asylum: A Memoir of Family Secrets.