Family Secrets: A Novel

Family Secrets: A Novel

by Rona Jaffe

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Family Secrets: A Novel by Rona Jaffe

Adam Saffron—builder, patriarch, and autocrat—has built a family empire. The Saffron family is successful, prestigious, and closely knit, and their great Windflower estate has kept them safe from the dangerous and enticing world beyond its gates for many years. The Windflower is superior and all-inclusive, much like the Saffrons themselves—but how long can their dynasty last?
Family Secrets is an epic three-generational saga that follows the fascinating Saffron family as they strive to keep their legacy alive, despite the separate paths each family member will inevitably take.

Product Details

ISBN-13: 9781504008389
Publisher: Open Road Distribution
Publication date: 02/24/2015
Sold by: Barnes & Noble
Format: NOOK Book
Pages: 511
Sales rank: 981,514
File size: 672 KB

About the Author

Rona Jaffe was the author of sixteen books, including Class Reunion, Family Secrets, The Road Taken, and The Room-Mating Season. Her 1958 best-selling first novel, The Best of Everything, was reissued by Penguin in 2005, and The Other Woman, originally published in 1972, was reissued by HarperCollins in 2015. She founded the Rona Jaffe Foundation in 1994, which presents a national literary award to promising female writers.


Read an Excerpt

Family Secrets

A Novel

By Rona Jaffe


Copyright © 1974 Rona Jaffe
All rights reserved.
ISBN: 978-1-5040-0838-9


In March of 1902 the rains never seemed to stop; there were floods all over the eastern part of the United States, and the part of Brooklyn the immigrants called Mudville was a sea of mud. The fixers, the peddlers, the people who worked out of doors, were driven inside, not only to keep from being drenched to the skin but because there was no business outside. Only a fool or a starving man would stand in such a rain. The coffee houses were full. Not only the men who sat there all day talking their business deals were there, but also those for whom the coffee house was ordinarily only an after-work luxury. It was better than the crowded rooms in which they lived, filled with the shouts and gabble of women and children and the smells of cooking and bodies and poverty and everyday life.

Adam Saffron had been sitting in the coffee house for nearly two weeks now. He was a fixer: a mender of chairs mostly, although his fingers were blessed and he could fix almost anything you gave him to repair, quickly and neatly. It was not his wish to be a chair mender, and certainly not his life's ambition, but it was the first job he had fallen into when he stepped off the boat, and it fed him and his wife, Polly, and the baby, Leah Vania, who was almost two and walked and talked already. He was twenty-four years old, he could speak English, and he had a small apartment with an indoor toilet for himself and his family. But he was not meant to remain a fixer for the rest of his life and he knew it, and so he sat in the coffee house and listened to the men who made business. These men bought and sold land without even setting foot on it. They knew where each lot was and what could be built on it, and so they bought and sold and never got their hands dirty. That was a job for an intelligent man, a clever man. It seemed to Adam, as he sat there nursing his cup of tea, that the only thing a man needed to do such business was a persuasive tongue and money. But if a man had no money, as he had none, then an intelligent man needed a persuasive tongue and a stupid partner who had money but no charm, no brains, and no gift of talk—in other words a man who needed someone to make deals for him with his money. Adam had considered several such possibilities, but the best one seemed to be Yussel, a big loksch who wanted to be liked and always made stupid deals that lost money. If anyone was to buy a piece of land that was impossible to sell, it was Yussel, and that was a feat, for they were buying everything, buying in the morning and selling that night. A man could make three hundred dollars in a single day.

Adam bit into the piece of sugar and holding it in his teeth sipped the tea through it, as he had done as a boy in Russia and would probably always do, although the Americans preferred to stir the sugar into the tea. That was what a rich man would do, not afraid to waste sugar; an American, who did not have to spend his life scheming of ways to make every little good thing last longer. There was Yussel in the corner with friends, his broad flat face beaming, slurping his tea from the saucer like a cat. A Hungarian, a peasant, but rich in this rich land, and so he could do as he pleased. There were those who drank their tea from a glass, and those who drank from a cup, and those who slurped from saucers, and there were those who drank coffee, and each showed his national origins and his wish to assimilate or to remain apart by this simple, natural act. Adam knew that what he saw everyone else also saw, and so he had begun to drink his tea from a cup instead of a glass, thus remaining somewhere in the middle, a man who could adjust but a man no one would really know.

He kept his eyes on Yussel, knowing that after a while the other men would drift away to join other groups, and then he could make his move. Yussel already liked him; Yussel liked everybody. And Adam had been listening to and learning the business talk around him until he knew exactly how to buy and sell a piece of land. But he had done one thing more, because he was new at this and had much to learn—he had left the coffee house every evening before supper and walked through Mudville, getting drenched and dirty and cold but hardly feeling it, walking and looking and imagining what could be done with such a place. It was a dreadful-looking place, even uglier in the rain. But a clever man could build cheap houses there, rent them to immigrants who would live anywhere as long as the rooms were big enough to house their large families and there was an indoor toilet. The houses could be ugly, they could be built all in a row and attached, which would be much cheaper than building separate buildings, and the immigrants would rent there because the apartments would be clean and new and the idea of being close to their own landsmen made them feel safe. These businessmen in the coffee house were clever, but they lacked imagination. To them Mudville was not real; it was a piece of paper, a handful of money, a deal, an abstract. But Adam saw it teeming with life, with sidewalks, with children running along those sidewalks and horse-drawn carts filled with produce being hawked along those streets. He saw the immigrant women coming out of their row houses, drying their reddened hands on their aprons and haggling with the peddlers for their family's dinner. He could hear them shrieking at their children to come in because dinner was ready, and he could see the immigrant husbands coming home from the factories, tired, sweaty, looking forward to a bath in their own kitchens.

This was his vision, but he would tell nobody, not because they would laugh at him but because it was none of their business. He would do it, step by step, and then when it was done they would wonder why they had not thought of it themselves. When he came home every night, soaked and muddy, Polly was upset because she thought he had been out trying to find chairs to mend, and she worried for his health. She filled the bathtub with hot water for him and dried and pressed his suit, cleaning it as best she could. She sighed over his ruined shoes, stuffing them with old newspapers as they dried to keep them from warping out of shape, cleaning and polishing them when they were dry, shaking her head sadly over her good man and watching him go out into the day to ruin his shoes all over again and not come back with a penny.

"Must you go out today?" she would ask softly. "We have enough saved to last until the rain stops. There's enough to eat, Adam. Stay. You'll be sick."

He would silence her with a look and pick up the baby, squeezing it hard in a hug until it screamed. Then the baby would wave at him from the doorway, one fat hand in her mother's thin one, the other waving at him. "Papa, Papa, Papa," the little voice would pipe, and Polly would smile.

It was Polly who had been taken sick, not he, and now she had been in bed for a week, burning with fever and coughing. It was the influenza. Everyone had it; it spread from house to house in the rain and the damp. She was a good woman, intelligent, tall but not strong, and she was his first cousin. His family often married cousins; they met each other at family occasions, were attracted, fell in love. If you married a cousin you knew the family, you were not likely to end up with bad blood. It was safer than marrying a stranger. Her family had come to America about the same time as his, and because he had known them back in the old country it was natural to become close with them here in the new one. Polly was as talented with her hands as he was with his. She sewed and embroidered ladies' clothes at home, and so helped him make a living. She always wore clothes she had made, and they were a living advertisement in the neighborhood when they went for a walk. Now that she was sick in bed it was lucky they had the family; there was always a cousin or an aunt in the apartment, tending to Polly, feeding and dressing the baby. He never had to worry about them, and that was good, for a man's work was in the world and he should not have to spend his time worrying about what was going on in his home. If he could make his first business with Yussel today he would have something good to tell Polly at last, and although perhaps she might not understand it, it would make her happy because she would know it was good. If he had some money in his pocket he would bring the doctor. Even though the cousins and the old aunts had all their home remedies from the old country, this was the new country, and maybe the doctor knew something they didn't know.

He saw the men who had been sitting with Yussel say their goodbyes, and Adam stood slowly and walked over to Yussel's table. "So nu, Yussel? Vas machst du? May I sit a minute?"

Yussel beamed. He was happy to see anybody who would be nice to him, and he was not a snob. A fixer was as good as a businessman because a fixer was needed too. How would life go on without those who worked with their hands? His father was a wealthy merchant of yard goods, and as Yussel saw it, how could he sell those yard goods if someone else hadn't first made them? It was the only clever thing Yussel had ever thought of all by himself, and so he liked to repeat it to anyone who would listen, hoping they would think he was a philosopher.

"Please sit," Yussel said. "Will you have tea?"

"Why not?"

Yussel laughed. "Why not? Yes, why not? There's nothing else to do today but drink tea until a man floats away."

"I have an idea for you and me to do a little business," Adam said.

And so the first part of his plan happened. He persuaded Yussel to put up the money to buy a lot, and then Adam sold the lot at a profit to one of the dealers in the coffee house, and by the end of the day Adam and Yussel were three hundred dollars richer, half of it for each of them, and not one of them had gotten their hands dirty, not one of them had set a foot out of doors into the mud. Yussel was as delighted and proud as if he had done it all himself.

"We make good partners, you and I," he said.

"We do," Adam said.

"You have the gift of gab. When I talk, I put my foot in my mouth. With you talking and me being the financial power, we could do very well together."

"That's true," Adam said. "But we could do more than trade one lot. What is a lot?"

Yussel looked blank. "What's a lot? Everybody knows what a lot is."

"I mean," Adam said patiently, "what is it for?"

"It's for ... for trading."

"But why do we trade it?"

Yussel brightened. "To make money!"

"But why, besides making money?"

"I don't like it when you talk in circles," Yussel said.

"We trade it," Adam said, "because it is a piece of land that someone, some day, will build houses on. Now, we have been trading land that everybody wants, and it's easy to sell a piece of land to a man who already has another piece of land next to it, because when he has enough land he wants to build on it and then he really makes money. So, my plan is this. Why don't we buy some land that nobody wants, get it very cheap, and then we build on it?"

"Why do we want something nobody wants?"

"Because we have imagination. We see what it could be."

"But who would build there, on this land nobody wants but us?"

"We would," Adam said.

"I thought you said that," Yussel said. "But would somebody want it after we built on it?"

"Of course. The people who would rent apartments from us."

"You mean we would be landlords?"

"We would be landowners and builders and landlords."

Yussel breathed a heavy sigh. "Oy, that takes a lot of money. Where could we get it?"

"From the bank."

"What would we use as collateral?"

"The land."

"What land?" Yussel said. "What is this magic land that nobody sees is wonderful but us, that we will get cheap and that will make us rich men?"


Yussel's excited face turned glum. "You've been making fun of me."

"I'm serious," Adam said. "We buy a big piece of Mudville. You with all your bad luck, and me, a fixer with no brains, how could anyone do anything but laugh at us? They will sell us as much land in Mudville as we want and think good riddance. And the bank will give us money, not as much as we would like, because they will think we're fools too, but enough. We won't be building palaces, you know. We'll be building good, cheap houses for people who have no homes to live in."

"If you say it can be done I believe you," Yussel said. "I'm willing to put up the money if you do the rest. But I wouldn't tell anybody. I'd be too embarrassed."

"They'll find out soon enough," Adam said.

With a hundred and fifty dollars in his pocket and wet feet Adam got off the streetcar and walked the two blocks to his apartment house. What a story he had to tell Polly tonight! First the story, then the doctor. No, first the doctor, then the story. He walked up the steps to his front door and suddenly there were women all around him—wailing women in babushkas and sheitels, crazy women, strangers, neighbors, all of them weeping and babbling like lunatics. He tried to push his way through them but hands grabbed at his sleeves. He recognized one of them at least, Tanta Yettel, his ancient aunt.

"Oh, my Adam," she said, and burst into tears. Her eyes were red as if she had already been crying for hours.

"What is it?" he said, and the first thought that popped into his mind was that something had happened to his mother.

"Polly is dead."


The day of the funeral the rain stopped, and Adam thought that life was strange because it was the rain that had started him on his great plan to become a success in life and it was that same rain that had taken his wife away. Afterward the small apartment was filled with friends and relatives. The women brought cakes and pies they had baked, platters of noodle pudding, chicken, beef, potato pancakes, cookies, bread. They sat and stared at each other and tried to think of things to say, and sometimes one or another of the women cried. They had every intention of sitting shiva for the entire prescribed time, and as far as Adam was concerned it was a waste of part of his life. Dead was dead. The dead lived on in the minds and hearts of the living. God had not made heaven and hell, the goyim had, and if they wanted to believe in such things and frighten themselves to death it was their pleasure, not his. Heaven or hell were here, on earth; he had seen plenty of evidence of both. He had seen plenty of devils who were human, without worrying about one with horns and a tail.

He left the apartment, and the women were sympathetic, thinking he needed to be alone with his grief. He went to the coffee house to find Yussel, and told him what had happened. Yussel was full of sympathy.

"I'm a bachelor myself, but I feel for your sorrow."

"Ya, ya." Adam nodded solemnly. "Now, you remember that we are still going to buy that land. Next week, on Monday, I'll be here to meet you and we'll start to work."

Yussel nodded and clasped Adam's hand. "Work is good medicine for grief. My mother used to say that, may she rest in peace."

"Your mother was a smart woman."

It was not so bad in the apartment in the evenings, for then the men came back from work and Adam had someone to talk to. He could never talk to women. He looked around at the faces of the people he had known for years, so many of them married to relatives, so many of the faces alike, all of them looking for security in a hard world and a strange land. A man should be married. A man should not live alone like a dog.

The baby screamed in her bed in the night. Polly's younger sister, Lucy, rose immediately and went into the dark room to comfort her. She came out carrying the baby, soothing her with soft words and little kisses. Adam watched them. Lucy was so young and small, only twenty. She almost never spoke, which he liked, and when she did her voice was gentle and she never said anything stupid. She was small, but she was not frail looking. Polly's height had been deceptive; she was thin and she had not been strong and she had died of an illness that took old people and babies. Looks could fool you. He followed Lucy into the kitchen.

"I'm making tea, Adam. Would you like some? Or would you prefer coffee?" She was speaking to him in Yiddish.

"You don't speak English?" he asked.


Excerpted from Family Secrets by Rona Jaffe. Copyright © 1974 Rona Jaffe. Excerpted by permission of OPEN ROAD INTEGRATED MEDIA.
All rights reserved. No part of this excerpt may be reproduced or reprinted without permission in writing from the publisher.
Excerpts are provided by Dial-A-Book Inc. solely for the personal use of visitors to this web site.

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