NOT EVEN A GLASS OF WATER
by Judy Bolton-Fasman
Think of this as an old movie. Black and white and crackling.
On the afternoon of Christmas Eve, 1959, while the businesses along Chapel Street in downtown New Haven were emptying out for the glittering holiday, the staid New Haven accounting firm of Rosen & Rosen was receiving an unexpected visitor. The receptionist was gone for the holidays and one of the partners, my father’s cousin David Rosen, got the door for a young woman in a state of great agitation. An old woman, the girl’s aunt, trailed nervously behind, fanning herself with a train schedule. The pair had traveled from Grand Central Station.
The older woman was there for the younger one, her niece Matilde. And Matilde was there for Harold Bolton. Three weeks earlier Harold had left her at the altar in Havana.
Matilde screamed in a thick Cuban accent, “Where is he?” She was carrying a B. Altman shopping bag that ripped as she extracted a crumpled white silk gown. The gleaming silver that followed registered as a butcher’s knife.
Hijo de mala madre. Son of a bitch. Matilde said it over and over in Spanish until she had no more breath.
The aunt, la Tía Ester, muttered in Ladino: “Dio de la Zedakades.” God of righteousness.
Harold emerged from his office at the sound of the commotion. There was Matilde smoothing the handmade wedding dress against her body. This was just the kind of erratic behavior that was among the reasons he had backed out of their wedding at the last minute—that, and his parents’ appalled reaction to his intention to marry a Cuban girl almost half his age. A girl who didn’t know a salad fork from a dinner fork. I imagine her Latina volatility was part of her allure for Harold—a sturdy, only son of Jewish immigrants born in Ukraine who insistently cultivated an American identity. But that afternoon, in the offices of Rosen & Rosen, Harold had no doubt that Matilde was capable of cutting herself or even of stabbing him to death.
Yet Harold also knew that Matilde had reason to be furious. What he had done had been uncharacteristically cowardly, even if it had been for the best. Harold had long ago given up on the idea of marriage, and, at forty, he felt too old to start a family. But when Matilde swept into his life just four months ago like high winds, he latched on to his dreams of marriage and family.
The pressure on Matilde to marry, particularly from her father Jacobo, must have been suffocating. At twenty-four, she should have been long married to make room for her younger sister Raquel who was already engaged. But after Matilde had finally found her groom, a telegram from his parents arrived at Numero 20 La Calle Merced. It said, “Nuestro hijo no puede carase con su hija, Matilde. La Boda esta cancelada.” The wedding in Havana was cancelled a little over three weeks before the December 20, 1959 date.
Matilde’s mother had been pinning her daughter’s wedding gown when Matilde read the Western Union message to her. Matilde keened, “Ay Dios.” Her mother nearly swallowed the pins.
Harold grabbed Matilde, but she wrenched free of his grasp in the reception area of Rosen & Rosen. She dropped the butcher’s knife as her gown fell limply to the floor. She knelt and pulled off the brooch strategically placed on the gown’s neckline to hide just enough cleavage to satisfy her Old World father.
“Look at this,” she hissed at Harold as she caressed the brooch. “It sparkles like the stars—the stars that lined up to cause my misfortune.”
Matilde laid out the gown on the floor so that it looked like the chalk outline of a murder victim. She made sure she had Harold’s attention before she slowly, deliberately raked the dress with her knife in a semi-successful attempt to cut long, raw tourniquets.
“I’m calling the police,” Harold announced. He started dialing a black rotary phone perched at the edge of the empty receptionist’s desk. The dial sounded hoarse, like a smoker. “The police,” he repeated, pointing at the receiver. “Policia.”
He was pretending much the way he would when I was behaving like a recalcitrant child, and he said he had my teacher on the line. But Matilde was unmoved. Her Tía Ester knew that there weren’t many options for an unstable girl from an unstable country. Ester was suitably alarmed and panicked as she shoved the mutilated dress back into the crumpled, torn shopping bag—a bag whose exuberantly scripted B. Altman logo echoed the bold strokes of Harold Bolton’s distinctive signature. With Harold now pointing the receiver at the two women as if it were an officer’s pistol, David Rosen herded Matilde and Ester into the hallway and backed them into the elevator.
“God help both of you,” David Rosen said as the elevator doors closed.
Before the wedding gown was a stand-in for my mother’s homicidal fantasies, my parents had married in a separate civil ceremony as required by Cuban law. A Justice of the Peace in New Haven’s City Hall married them in November of 1959. It was the first time Matilde realized that her distinguished groom was older than the thirty-five years he led her to believe. She gasped less from the sting of being lied to than the superstitions that anchored her life. “We won’t see our fiftieth anniversary,” she cried. They nearly didn’t make it to their first anniversary.
My Abuela Corina had painstakingly mended the dress and arrived with it from Cuba the day before the sparsely attended ceremony on March 20, 1960—four months after City Hall and three months after the botched attempt at a formal wedding in Havana. My mother marched down the aisle of the Spanish-Portuguese Synagogue on Central Park West in Manhattan, skirting the annulment my father had initially wanted.
I needed to see the aisle down which they had walked all those years ago. On a late January afternoon in 2012, after I had missed my train back to Boston, I hailed a cab to go to the Spanish-Portuguese Synagogue, where, fifty-two years earlier, my parents had married. Off I went against a tide of red brake lights. The driver said that he didn’t have any ones or fives. I didn’t care. I just wanted to get to the synagogue, so I paid twenty dollars for a nine-dollar ride. On the cold, dark cab ride, I felt a mixture of longing and curiosity and excitement, as if I were about to go back in time and lurk on the sidelines. I needed to see the place to picture the dimensions of my parents’ wedding, to create pictures that were not taken during the actual ceremony.
My parents posed for a formal portrait a week after they were married. My father wore a dark suit with the white hyphen of a handkerchief peeking from his breast pocket. My mother, already pregnant with me after her wedding night, wore the dress whose plunging neckline was held in check by the sparkling broach. In her white-gloved hands was a cascading bouquet of flowers. Her eyes were rimmed in kohl. Instead of a veil, an embroidered triangle of cloth comes to a point with a pearl at the center of her forehead, creating a lacy widow’s peak. The lipstick unnaturally dark; my father’s cheeks unnaturally pink. They do not touch each other; they do not smile. I have never seen a photograph of them kissing or holding hands. I have never seen them look happy.
The entrance to the synagogue was locked, but through one of the door panes I saw a custodian vacuuming.
“No puede be here,” he said through the glass. “Servicio en six-thirty.”
“Por favor,” I pleaded. “My parents were married in this synagogue mas de cinquento años.” I hoped that such a long stretch of time would impress him enough to open up the chapel for me. “I need to see it. Muy importante.”
He opened the door and motioned for me to put my bag down—my wallet, iPad and train ticket were transferred to this man’s possession. I took off my coat and reflexively put up my hands as if I were being arrested.
“Rapido,” he whispered. As if sending me on a reconnaissance mission he added, “Buena Suerte, Señorita.” Good luck.
I sprinted around the corner into the plush, dark chapel where I stopped at the bima—the raised platform from which the service is conducted—in the middle of the small room. My parents’ huppah—the marriage canopy—must have consisted of four poles to hold up the tallit—the prayer shawl—borrowed from the synagogue and erected in front of the reader’s lectern.
The huppah symbolizes the first home a married couple shares. It is also a stand-in for the tent in which Abraham and Sarah welcomed visitors passing through the desert. With the tallit doubling as the symbolic roof of this makeshift home, it is opened on all sides to represent the couple’s vulnerability to life’s vicissitudes.
As bride and groom, my parents faced the ner tamid—the eternal light above the ark. The Ten Commandments in this chapel were etched in gold on whitewashed tablets. This was a traditional synagogue where men and women sat separately during services. In the style of a Sephardic Jewish synagogue, the women were relegated to the raised benches along the side rather than corralled behind a makeshift wall at the back of the room. But, for this wedding, the Boltons had demanded that men and women sit together. I imagined my grandmother muttering, “My poor boy,” as my grandfather patted her hand. “It’s hard to marry off a son,” he would say.
A few people, just ten—barely a minyan, a prayer quorum—witnessed my parents’ marriage. Among them were my grandmother and aunt, surely elegant in white gloves, hats perched on coiffed hair and shoes fastidiously dyed to match their outfits. My grandfather and uncle would have worn sleek, dark suits with pocket-handkerchiefs like my father. Abuela was too cold to take off the coat she borrowed from my mother’s landlady.
All eyes were initially on my father who stood wide-eyed under the huppah, looking for his bride beyond the same shiny horizon he stared at from the deck of his supply ship during the war. Grandma Bolton called his piercing gaze the “Asian stare.” According to her, it happened to men who were stationed on ships in the South Pacific for months at a time. Their hopes and dreams lay beyond where the thin blue line of ocean met an illusory land mass.
In my mind’s eye, my mother enters the chapel draped in white silk. The significant train of her gown dwarfs the aisle, a long veil covers her face, and flowers tremble in her gloved hands. If the wedding portrait is any indication, my father had the expression of a dial tone throughout the brief ceremony. When the wedding was over, Abuela said that she knew of widows whose second weddings were more joyous.
“Señorita, por favor,” said the custodian interrupting my reverie. Please, Miss. He ran his fingers through his pomaded hair, but I wasn’t quite finished with the chapel. I could see my father shift his weight under the huppah and feel around in his pocket to make sure that he had the white gold band to slip on my mother’s index finger. He also checked his breast pocket to make sure he had the transliteration of the Hebrew words Jewish grooms have said to their brides for centuries.
Harai et mekudeshet lee b’ta ‘ba zi k’dat Mosheh v’ Yisrael. Be sanctified to me with this ring in accordance with the laws of Moses and Israel.
And with that, after seven months of stormy courting and one canceled wedding, my parents were married. After the ceremony, there was no reception, no celebratory dinner with family.
“Ni un vaso de agua,” my mother always says. There wasn’t even a glass of water.
In accordance with Jewish custom, my father had stepped on the only available glass.
Judy Bolton-Fasman is an award-winning writer whose creative nonfiction has appeared on The Rumpus, Salon, Brevity, Cognoscenti, Lunch Ticket, the Rappahannock Review, and 1966: A Journal of Creative Non-Fiction. This essay is based on Judy’s unpublished memoir The Ninety Day Wonder. She lives and works outside of Boston.
Image credit: Harold and Matilde Bolton on their wedding day. Courtesy of Judy Bolton Fasman