Nation of Immigrants
My paternal grandmother Esther was 13 when she emigrated from the Ukraine. She told her family she would drown herself in the mill pond if she was not sent to the U.S. instead of her sister.
Is this story true? Am I remembering it correctly? Who knows. She went.
She was smuggled across a border checkpoint of the Austrio-Hungarian Empire hidden in a sausage cart. Unkosher meat piled on top of a small Jew.
As far as I can ascertain, she was traveling without any family members, although presumably someone was meeting her.
She got her period on the boat. She thought she was bleeding to death. A kindly mother explained about menstruation. Presumably as a stranger, she did not hit my grandmother across the face. This is the custom among eastern European Jews, as well as some Middle Eastern people. To slap a girl’s face on the occasion of her first menses.
Why? You tell me. Shame? A reprimand? Taboo? No doubt. It isn’t exactly mazal tov, whatever you may say. A woman’s life is full of pain.
America is an upgrade. My mother does not slap my face on the occasion of my menarche, although she feels compelled to remind me—I am not slapping you.
Not getting slapped simply for being a woman. Good.
Why did my grandmother threatted to kill herself? Did she long for freedom? Or was something bad happening to her—a girl child? We’ll never know.
So I am sitting in the Saigon, eating yellow noodles. I’ve seen the owner’s daughter grow from a baby cooing in a back booth to being a middle schooler capable of bussing a table. I’m drinking hot dark tea out of a small white cup that has no handle.