Montreal, 1951. Rebecca Wiseman, 18 years old, from a Catholic-Jewish family, lives with her working-class parents. At a local dance, she briefly meets a handsome young man, but has little hope of seeing him again. When Sol Gottesman tracks her down and asks her on a date, her joy mingles with disbelief when she learns he is the son of a wealthy businessman.
Sol takes her in a chauffeured Rolls-Royce to the most expensive restaurant in the city, introducing Rebecca to a world of upper-class wealth and privilege unknown in her working-class family. Despite the usual bumps in any relationship, Rebecca believes her life is perfect.
She soon learns that despite Sol’s outward charm, he lacks self-confidence. On a visit to Mount Royal overlooking the city, Sol reveals the simmering conflicts in his family and his fears that his brother plans to drive him out of the family business. Rebecca’s wants to protect Sol, but helping him stand up to the pressure from his family, puts her squarely in the midst of it all.
Targeted Age Group:: Adult only
Heat/Violence Level: Heat Level 3 – PG-13
What Inspired You to Write Your Book?
Before going to work, I often met an elderly Jewish woman in the coffee shop downstairs from my office. We talked ‘books,’ sharing a similar taste in fiction. When she learned that I was a writer, she told me many stories about her experiences growing up in Montreal before and after WWII. Her story about her engagement as an 18-year-old girl astounded me. She invited me to ‘write it up,’ thinking it would make an interesting short story. Over the next ten months, I gave her chapters to read. When the 300-page manuscript was finished, she hefted the pages laughing, “This weighs more than a short story!”
How Did You Come up With Your Characters?
Most of the characters were based on those in the story told to me by my elderly friend. I had to add a great many details as the novel progressed. I'd written three short stories with these characters so that exercise gave me a head start. There were many minor characters that were made up out of whole cloth.
My parents had invited the Gottesmans for dinner shortly after our engagement, but for one reason or another, the dinner had been postponed. That morning I woke long before dawn. My bedclothes were soaked with sweat. When I remembered the dinner, a cramp twisted my stomach into a knot. I ran to the bathroom feeling nauseous. ‘Please God,’ I prayed, ‘get me through this day.’ Better yet, send a freak blizzard and shut down the city. The nausea passed, and I returned to bed. Trying to lull myself back to sleep, I amended my prayer: ‘God, scratch the blizzard.’ I had to get this day behind me.
Talking with Jackie, I mentioned the dinner. “Sounds fascinating,” she said, trying to coax me out of my anxiety. Then, she asked if she could come. “I’ll pretend to be a maid. I’m sure your mother would appreciate the help.”
“I’m sick to my stomach thinking about it,” I told her. “I’ll throw up if I try to eat.”
“It’s never as bad as you think. Your Mom and Mrs. G may become bosom buddies.”
“She has plenty of bosom to go around.”
Jackie said she looked forward to meeting her at the wedding. “Be sure to introduce me. I want to see if she’s as bad as you say.” When I groaned into the phone, she added, “Cheer up, Becky. We’ll laugh about this one day.”
In preparation, Mom and I scoured the first floor of the house: all the woodwork scrubbed, every curtain washed and pressed, the hall closet emptied and cleaned. Dad swept out the fireplace and polished the andirons. I told him not to light a fire unless necessary. He’d spend the evening poking at the logs – an obsession that drove me crazy.
Despite our efforts, walking into the hallway after a trip to the florist, I saw our home as the Gottesmans would see it. What were we thinking to invite them here? Everything looked shabby. Under their polish, the baseboards in the hall were scuffed and chipped, the carpet on the bottom stair was worn, the hall wallpaper faded. A print of a mythological picnic with leering satyrs and fat women hanging on the wall was hideous. I took it down, but the bright wallpaper behind it only made the fading elsewhere uglier. I was ashamed of my shame. Did all this really matter in the end? I could only conclude: Yes.
Luckily, working in the kitchen cheered me up. The roast smelled delicious, and my mother’s famous lemon meringue pie was just out of the oven. She had set the dining room with her best linen, china and silverware. With the lights turned low and the candles lit, the room would look inviting.
I peeled potatoes and set them on a slow boil. I spread a mixture of brown sugar and bread crumbs over the mashed turnips ready for baking. My stomach began growling. Good. I had an appetite after all.
I showered and slipped on a pale green silk blouse with a high neckline. After pinning my Christmas gift from Sol just below my throat, I turned left and right before the mirror. The profile of the ivory figure in the brooch glowed in the light. Although my appearance was a little old-fashioned, the brooch made me look more mature and serious.
The doorbell rang. My mother and I both shouted something like, “My God, they’re here,” but it was only my father who’d left work early to buy the wine. “You look like you’ve seen a ghost,” he told my mother. It was a minute before my heart stopped thudding in my chest.
In the kitchen, Dad placed the white wine on ice and uncorked the red ‘to let it breathe.’ He proposed we have a small glass of wine ‘to lubricate the mind.’ And loosen the tongue, I thought, worried about a three-hour conversation with the Gottesmans.
They were forty-five minutes late. Despite the mild weather, Mrs. Gottesman wore her leopard fur. Her husband wore a grey sheepskin coat with a white collar. Sol helped them with their coats, but in our small entry way, everyone was in each other’s way. Although I’d warned my parents, they were taken aback by Mrs. Gottesman’s weight. I steered her toward the most solid chair in the living room. After hanging up his coat, Sol hesitated in the empty hallway like an actor who’d forgotten his lines before walking on stage.
Mom had anticipated some delay, but even so the cocktail period was abbreviated. I had nothing more to drink. I didn’t want to risk a repetition of the infamous wedding episode.
Once our parents were settled with their drinks, Sol and I kicked off the conversation with some innocuous comments about the wedding plans.
“Has the bridal gown arrived?” Mr. Gottesman asked. I told him I had one more fitting on Tuesday. My father commented on the poor performance of the Canadiens. I’d forgotten to warn him to avoid that subject, so I interrupted. “Sol says the store has been busy lately.” This reminded Sol of his interview with a young man applying for the position of stock boy. Sol seemed ill at ease and lost the thread of his story. The ending wasn’t as funny as he’d hoped.
All the while Mrs. Gottesman was staring at me or, more accurately, at my throat, like she wanted to strangle me. With Sol’s mother maintaining an ominous silence and my mother flitting back and forth to the kitchen, the conversation kept stalling. “That was my first job in Montreal,” my father spoke up. “Stock boy at Ruckenstein Clothing.” In the beat of silence that followed his untimely trip down memory lane, Mom returned without her apron. “Dinner’s ready, folks.”
We had an incident shortly after taking our seats. While my father carved the roast, Mr. Gottesman rubbed his fingers along the tablecloth as if something sticky was on his hand. Before shaking out his linen napkin, he examined it, turning it to the light.
“Is something wrong?” my mother asked. “Would you like another napkin?”
Mr. Gottesman acted surprised that anyone was watching him, not realizing his actions were far more interesting than my father with the carving knife. “Oh, no,” he said. “I was only wondering if this was real Irish linen.”
My mother smiled, pleased that someone had noticed. She assured him the linen was genuine. “A wedding gift from my brother in Texas.”
“Texas? Where would he find it there?”
“He bought the linen while travelling in Ireland.” My mother was calm and gracious.
“Are you sure?” he asked. Putting the napkin down, he smoothed the tablecloth with his fingertips. “I’m surprised.”
Dad interrupted, asking who liked their meat on the rare side. Mr. Gottesman said he liked his beef as bloody as possible.
My father prepared each plate while the vegetables made their way around the table. Mrs. Gottesman hesitated, as though unfamiliar with serving herself. The sound of silverware scraping on china filled the empty spaces in the conversation. Mrs. Gottesman put down her knife and fork. “You’re wearing a lovely brooch, dear,” she said, looking directly at my throat. “I couldn’t remember where I’d seen one like it.” Now everyone stopped eating. I had food in my mouth but couldn’t swallow with everyone looking at my throat.
She turned to Sol. “Isn’t that like the brooch my mother left you?”
With the spotlight off me, I swallowed my food.
Sol said nothing. She’d caught all of us unawares.
Not waiting for his answer, she turned back to me. “It looks almost as good on you as it did on my mother. But then,” she continued, “she had very refined bone structure.”
“Thank you for noticing,” I said, refusing to take the bait. “I’ll always treasure Sol’s gift but knowing this belonged to his grandmother makes it even more special.” I thought my remark sounded heartfelt. The smile that accompanied my words not so much.
The conversation reminded me of a naval battle I’d seen in an Errol Flynn movie. The pirate ship fires a broadside at the Crown’s flagship, then swings around and fires another. My father, bless him, started talking about the Montreal Royals. It was like blowing on embers and about as effective.
Mr. Gottesman was a methodical eater who took his time to chew between mouthfuls. Mrs. Gottesman, on the other hand, wolfed down her meal. “I don’t believe I’ve had turnips since childhood.”
Offering the serving bowl for seconds, my mother said that she had found the recipe in Maclean’s.
“No, thank you.” Mrs. Gottesman waved the dish away. “I will have more potatoes though.”
Inexplicably, Mr. Gottesman once again returned to the subject of my wedding gown. He asked my father if he knew M. Volaré, the owner of the firm.
“No, I’ve never met him,” Dad said, “but I’ve heard how well my daughter and wife were treated when they visited.”
Before Mr. Gottesman could reply, his wife spoke up. “Speaking of gowns, a friend told me she’d seen an interesting gown at a wedding she recently attended. The reception, I understand, was held at the university.”
What’s she getting at? I wondered, resigned to hear more criticism of our wedding plans.
“Your daughter made quite the impression.” Mrs. Gottesman reached over and covered my mother’s hand with her own. “Did you make it yourself?”
She was referring to the wedding Sol and I had attended at McGill. Before I could react, I was distracted by the three large rings – a diamond, ruby, and emerald – on Mrs. Gottesman’s right hand. My mother had no idea what she was talking about and looked to me for help.
“This was the wedding Sol and I attended last month.”
“Who would have guessed a peignoir from a lingerie department could look so chic?”
“Mother, I asked you—” Sol’s voice startled my mother and she pulled her hand away.
“For goodness sakes, Sol, I told you how chic I thought it was.” She looked from my mother to my father, sitting at opposite ends of the table. “Although, when my friend saw my Sol dancing…” She attempted a carefree laugh. “…dancing with a woman who she imagined was a patient from the hospital next door who’d slipped out for a night on the town.”
Sol jumped to his feet, his legs bumping the table, causing the candles to shiver. “Mother, how could you? I told you it was a beautiful gown and not at all what you thought.”
“Sit down, Sol,” his father ordered, pointing at Sol’s chair. “You have no reason to be cross with your mother.”
Sol remained standing, his fingers twitching at the edge of the table. He glared at his mother. “Rebecca was beautiful in that gown and I was proud—”
“Sit down,” his father repeated.
I tugged on Sol’s suit jacket to convince him to sit down before anything more was said. He reached down and gripped my hand. He took his seat.
Mrs. Gottesman sighed and wiped her hands on her napkin. “I never said—”
“That’s enough.” Mr. Gottesman turned to my mother. “I apologize for this outburst. I’m sure we have more important things to discuss.”
The silence that followed seemed more ominous than anything that had been said. My mother, to her credit, smiled as if nothing had happened. “I’ll get the pie and coffee. Rebecca, will you clear the table?”
Mrs. Gottesman took this moment to excuse herself. “The ladies’ room?” I told her the bathroom was at the head of the stairs. Walking through the living room, she added, “No pie for me, thank you.” I couldn’t help thinking of Errol Flynn’s pirate ship sailing away to reload.
I stacked the plates at the table and carried them to the kitchen. My mother looked up from the coffee pot and shook her head. Sol followed with the vegetable dishes and placed them next to the sink. He looked tired. When he turned around, my mother put her arms around him. “You were so gallant standing up for Rebecca,” she whispered. “I’m proud of both of you.”
Sol leaned into her but didn’t move, not wanting to break the spell. My mother patted him on the back. “Have courage.”
“I’m so sorry,” he whispered, “I’d hoped they would—” He pulled away before finishing.
While cutting the pie at the kitchen table, I heard the two fathers talking quietly at the table. Two words froze my blood: South Africa!
“We’ll serve coffee at the table if you’ll carry the pot in,” my mother said, handing Sol a pot holder. “Careful, it’s hot.” She followed him with the sugar bowl and cream.
Was I the only one who had heard Mr. Gottesman? My hands shook, clattering the dessert plates on the tray.
“Is anything wrong?” my mother said, hurrying back into the kitchen for the tray. She was too distracted to wait for an answer. Had my imagination tricked me once again? Sol and my mother seemed concerned only with serving dessert and deciding who would pour the coffee.
Mrs. Gottesman had not returned from the bathroom. Under normal circumstances, I would have enjoyed picturing her maneuvering in our small bathroom. Now I only felt heartsick.
Thankfully, Sol took charge of pouring the coffee and passing the cups. I felt detached from my surroundings. Watching myself from a distance, I was convinced a stranger had taken charge of my body.
Mr. Gottesman cleared his throat and addressed my mother. “Your husband and I have been discussing his current difficulty with the department store in Johannesburg. It’s unfortunate, but these things happen in business from time to time.”
I stole a look at my father. He sat with his elbows on the table, his hands folded together in front of his mouth. He stared off into space as if he too was hoping a stranger would replace him. Mom continued stirring her coffee. “The sugar, please, Becca.”
“I was about to offer a solution that could resolve all our concerns. My wife and I are prepared to pay the outstanding judgment of the court – $19,000, I believe?” He waved his hand as if the amount was unimportant. “Make it an even $20,000 to cover incidentals and, of course, the lawyer. Those shysters are always first in line.” He held his open palms over the table as if presenting the money.
My father turned to face Mr. Gottesman, frowning as if he hadn’t heard him correctly. But I knew my father and I were thinking the same thing: What did Sol’s father want in return?
“You mentioned your concerns…?” My father sounded resigned to the true cost of Mr. Gottesman’s generosity.
“Our only request is that Sol and Rebecca postpone their marriage for a year. They haven’t known each other long, and this will give them time—”
“NO!” I shouted. I gripped the tablecloth to help me stand, spilling the coffee Sol had so carefully poured. “NO, NEVER.” Tears welled in my eyes. I was aware that Sol was also standing, but when he tried to put his arm around me, I pulled away and ran into the living room, my tears nearly blinding me. As if in a nightmare, I saw Mrs. Gottesman coming toward me from the stairs. So that’s why you went upstairs, you coward. I ducked around her, afraid she might touch me. In the hall, I huddled against the front door. Behind me, I heard angry voices but, with the pounding in my head, I couldn’t make sense of them.
Sol was in the hallway, putting his arms around me and crushing me against him. “Becky, don’t cry. We won’t let them stop us. If they won’t come to our wedding, then to hell with them. I love you more than anything.” He rocked us from side to side. “We’ll run away if they try to stop us. We’ll run away and get married and never see my parents again.” He held my head against his chest. “Becky. Stop. Everything will be okay. I promise.”
I hiccupped trying to get my breath. I knew I must look a mess, but I didn’t care. I had never felt so loved by him. Any lingering doubts were gone. I trusted Sol. He would protect me from his parents. I took his handkerchief from his jacket pocket and wiped my eyes and nose. “I’ve ruined another handkerchief.”
“Did you hear me?” he asked. “I mean it. They can’t stop us.”
Sol led me back to the dining room. The Gottesmans were already standing: Mrs. Gottesman seemed eager to leave, but Mr. Gottesman acted as if nothing unusual had occurred. I understood how clever a negotiator he was. Nothing ruffled him or distracted him from his goal. “Thank you for dinner, Mrs. Wiseman.” He bowed slightly toward her. “Mr. Wiseman,” he said, extending his hand. My father automatically reached out to shake his hand, but then thought better of it. Before he could pull away, Mr. Gottesman grabbed his hand in both of his. “We all need a few days to think things over. Cooler heads will prevail, as they say.”
I remained in the dining room while they put on their coats in the hall. Sol returned to kiss me. “I’ll come back after I drive them home.”
I shook my head. “I’m too tired. I can’t talk anymore.” I reached up and stroked his cheek. “I love you. Call me tomorrow.”
I returned to the living room while my parents waited at the front door, watching their car drive away. They closed the door and returned to the living room, sitting on either side of me on the couch.
“Why does she hate me so much?” I asked.
“She thinks you’re taking her son away from her,” my mother said, brushing my hair back behind my ears.
“She doesn’t even like Sol,” I said. “She just doesn’t want anyone else to have him.”
Mom placed her hand under my chin and gently turned my head until I was looking into her eyes. “It’s up to Sol to deal with his parents. You have to stay out of it.”
Behind me, my father cleared his throat. “I would never, even for a moment, consider Mr. Gottesman’s offer.” He placed his hand on my back, lightly as if unsure I would believe him. “I know I’ve let you down, but I won’t let anything stop your marriage to Sol.”
All the tension of the evening and his awkward attempt at reconciliation undid me. I put my arms around him. His collar still smelled of aftershave. “We don’t need his money,” I said. “Sol and I will do whatever we can to help.” But how much could we do?
“I don’t want to cause any more distress,” my mother said, “but his parents could make things difficult for Sol and your life together.”
She was saying something that I never wanted to consider, much less put into words. “I won’t let them stop us. I won’t.” My mother had always championed my marriage to Sol. Was she now telling me to reconsider?
“I’m not saying you should. I only mean that the two of you must be realistic and be prepared.”
Before we started the dishes, my mother asked me to run upstairs and get her sweater. Walking into her bedroom, I had the sensation that something was different, but nothing looked out of place. Only when I picked up the sweater from her side of the bed, did I notice that a picture on my father’s bureau had been turned toward the wall. I’d seen the picture all my life – a generic portrayal, by a French artist, of a mother and infant sitting on a bale of hay in a barn at night surrounded by cows. A single lantern hanging from a rafter illuminated the mother and child. A casual viewer might not find the image familiar: the draping of the mother’s shawl around her face, the folds of her peasant skirt and her smile of joy with a trace of sadness. The only clue to the real subject was the faint halo surrounding the child’s head. Had Mrs. Gottesman looked through our rooms when she was supposed to be having a pee? Returning the frame to its original position, I almost forgot to bring Mom’s sweater with me.
When I mentioned to my mother what I’d seen and my suspicions, she said it wasn’t Mrs. Gottesman. Instead, she’d turned the picture to the wall to avoid any reminder of religion.
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