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My mother always said she'd felt something of a letdown when she first saw the sign reading concordia town limits. They had been riding for three days along rutted dirt roads north and west of Nashville. Somehow she had come to believe that when they got to the town that my father had chosen for their new home-their destination, he said-there would be something remarkable about it, something that would set it apart from the other small Tennessee communities through which they had been traveling. But here they were, at the "outskwirts," as my father called it all his life, and what she saw were only more cotton fields, yet another wooden church with a cross on top, one more cemetery. So what should she have expected? she asked herself. An elevated train? Fancy gates?
My mother wasn't exactly overjoyed at being there. Truly, ever since they had left New York City, her mood had been like a thing on her chest, as she used to say. Two years and three months before, the family had ridden the train south to Nashville, where at least there lived other Jewish families, where there was a shul, or synagogue, and the prospect of a glass of tea in the afternoons with the rabbi's wife. Now they were about to enter a small town in Banion County, west Tennessee, fifty miles southwest of Paducah, Kentucky, wherever that was. They were going to try to open a store in a place where they would be the only Jews in town.
These feelings of my mother's were very unlike those of my father. Indeed, in disposition the two of them were very different. She was the one who looked back, fretted, viewed with alarm, often brooded. He lived for the future, crossed bridges when he came to themand not before, hoped always for the best.
In looks, except that they were both small in stature, they were opposites as well. My father's appearance was bright and light, his straight hair "blondish," his eyes famously blue, his smile quickly there. My mother was dark haired and dark eyed, and her smile came less readily.
As they rode toward town, true to form, my father was ebullient, my mother apprehensive. Oy, what were they doing here, she was asking herself, herself and her husband and her two children, here among these, as my father called them, "country Tennesseans"? From what she had seen of them along the road, she had already declared them a curious people. Were they not strange, these women who charged out of their houses (in bonnets stiff like iron) to sweep with brooms their dirt yards? Whoever heard?
And oy, the church spires. As she looked now toward the town, she counted six. Or maybe seven. In such a small town, so many churches? From what she had heard, in the South prayers went to God and to-um-Jesus, so why not just one big praying place, come one, come all? The deep gloom all at once upon her, she did what she always did when this happened-put her head in her hands and moved it back and forth, as if tolling it. "Like a bell my head was in those days" was the way she used to describe it.
As the oft-repeated tale went, when, on July 16, 1920, the Bronsons reached the edge of town, there was in the sky a heavy black cloud outlined in cold blue. Within a few minutes the rain began falling. My father pulled the wagon into the graveyard, and my mother joined Joey and Miriam under the tarpaulin, which already sheltered the family's few possessions. My father stayed out in the now-hammering rain and stared at the tombstones. On one a poem started, "So sinks the sun after a gentle day," and he thought it was nice that somebody's day had been gentle, his own not having been gentle by anybody's call.
My father had wanted to go by train; Concordia was a county seat, and therefore the train stopped there. But trains meant fares and freight charges, and with the debt to my grandfather for their trip to Nashville still outstanding, my mother-for whom a debt was, as she put it, "like a growth"-argued otherwise. No, she said, they should think of "a penny saved, a penny to pay back with" and should therefore go by wagon. As if it were a matter of choosing the El over the streetcar to get to 125th Street, my father said.
As the thunder retreated, my father heard its rumble as threats to return if he didn't do right. Understood, he said to himself, but right about what? Out of his choices, of which he had many, he picked the most imminent-a place to stay. The wagon one more night was not an option. But where to look? And where was his mazel-his good luck-which should be turning up right about now to point the way?
Suddenly, not from the heavens but from the elm tree, plummeted two boys. As they stood staring at my father, they seemed to him the color and texture of the rain itself.
Atop pale hair sat ancient Panama hats, the saturated brims undulating with each raindrop. Pants, perhaps once blue, were streaky white; white shirts, confined by suspenders, were soppy, the long sleeves, buttoned at the wrists, plastered to arms. Feet were bare.
These were the Medlin brothers-T and Erv. As he announced their names, T, the older one and the one who spoke (Erv, six, only gazed), told my father he had been "christened" T.J. but was called T "for short"-as if, my father always said, two letters were too much of a mouthful. T was "near to nine," although my father described him as one of those country boys who might be "near to nine" but were more like "near to" thirty. They were the sons of a cotton farmer and lived "over yonder," T said, pointing to a peeling farmhouse.
T was puzzled by my father's presence. "You be the new Jew peddler?" he asked him.
"Jew yes, peddler no," my father answered him.
It was clear the boy had never before seen a Jew who wasn't a peddler. "Where you bound then?" As we got to know T through the years, we all were aware of his habit of flicking his eyes up when he was doubtful, and he did that now. "And what you got in mind?"
When told that my father was bound for Concordia and had in mind opening a store there, the boy seemed even more confounded. Though we all liked to "do" people, I always thought my father had a true gift for mimicry, and what T said now, according to how my father told it, was, "Danged if I ever heard tell of a Jew storekeeper afore. And, law, in Concordia?"
As the rest of the Bronson family emerged from the tarpaulin, T looked them over, commented in an aside to my father, "I see you ain't just the one Jew," and asked if they needed a place to stay. He had something in mind-the home of his "cudden," Brookie Simmons, the one in Concordia who took strangers in, the one who, according to T, "loved company like a darky on Sunday afternoon."
My father had one question-the itchy "How much?" All the money he had in the world was in his inside coat pocket, and it was a slight amount indeed. "She charge much?" he asked T, not comfortable with the question but having to ask it
It was plainly T's view that everybody in the world except my father knew that Brookie Simmons was the daughter and heir of "Coca-Cola" Simmons, the bottling plant magnate and the town's wealthiest man, and as such she would be little interested in such matters. "You don't know nothing if you think she's in it for the money," he said to my father.
My father had no alternative but to chance it. He asked the boy, "So, you're ready to go, Mr. T?"
"Yessir." T climbed into back of the wagon, and Erv followed. My mother reseated herself on the perch.
My father flicked the horse lightly, called out, "Vi-o! Vi-o! Giddyap! Giddyap! Let's go, you Willy you!" and the wagon was back on the road. Now that they were set for the night, my father felt that he was not mucking around in the yellow mud, which, after the rain, the road had once again become, but that he was gliding along a ribbon of gold silk.
As they neared Concordia, T leaned over from the back to give my father directions. "Left as soon as you hit the cobblestones, Mr. Jew."
The words flew out of her mouth, my mother said later, like a bird from an open cage. "Mr. Bronson, little boy."
"Yes, ma'am," the boy answered her.
The house of Miss Brookie Simmons was on Third Street, two blocks from First. It was a little different from the neighboring two-story white frame houses in that it seemed wide rather than tall, with a roof only slightly pitched. Perched on the roof was a little rectangular construction, an attic that had ignored symmetry and simply shot itself off to one side. What the house looked most like was a shallow-tiered, white-iced, sat-on cake.
As the wagon pulled up, everybody except my mother jumped off and started up the concrete walk. After the rain the sun had come out full, and steam was rising from my father's damp wool coat. Also Joey needed a haircut and his black curls hung over his forehead like a bunch of Concord grapes, and Miriam was in a dress wrinkled as if it had been slept in. Well, my mother reminded herself as she sat alone in the wagon, it had been slept in. And she thought oy, what if my father came back insulted? For the way they all looked. For being in a wagon. For being Jewish.
She gave a long look to the house. It was a house in need of paint, sitting on pilings of cracked, often absent bricks. The steps were scuffed, the lattice under the house broken, the porch floor full of warps and waves. This was the house of the daughter of the richest man in town?
Miss Brookie Simmons was out the door before the entourage even got to the steps. Out she came, short and round, a white cotton shirtwaist above, a long navy blue skirt below. Gold-rimmed glasses glinted as she moved; and salt-and-pepper gray hair, cut Buster Brown style with straight-as-pins bangs, swung around.
Plump she might have been, but, according to my father, she was a fast mover. In one quick circuit she had hugged T, shaken my father's hand, run her fingers through Joey's curls, and twisted Miriam's earlobe. Erv's cheek was pinched and a peck planted. The lady seemed as pleased as a hen coming upon unexpected feed. As she went whirling around, she was saying "delighted" over and over, which to my father sounded hopeful. She finally made it plain and said to him, "You can have two rooms, and you can decide for yourselves who goes in which."
My father couldn't decide on the spot who was going in which, but he liked this lady. "How could you not like her?" he used to say. "A lady so busy with such a nice hello?"
She bounded down the steps, and everybody followed. My mother watched her coming to the wagon. Brookie. What kind of name was that? The names she missed were more like Molka, Gittle, Moishe, which at this moment she feared she might never hear again. When the lady got to the wagon, she laid down a barrage of words, to my mother such gibberish she could only remain mute in the face of it.
The lady finally reached up and tugged at my mother's arm, and in another moment, everybody was going up the walk, Miss Simmons in the lead, a strong flow of chatter in her wake. Joey and Miriam were jumping about, and my father was talking, laughing, being happy. My mother trailed behind. She felt, as she often said, like a shoe run over by many streetcars.
Inside, the house seemed deep and dark. My mother at once thought she smelled the mustiness she had been advised to expect in Gentile houses. Hadn't she heard about a cleaning compound made of pig fat?
Miss Simmons led them to two upstairs bedrooms, furnished identically. My mother's first bit of cheer came from hearing there was a bathroom "down the hall." She had worried that in this country town there would be only outhouses, and she had been remembering them as they had been in the old country-tiny huts in the backyard to which you dashed on hot nights, frigid nights, any kind of nights, for things the house pot wouldn't do for.
After a glance into both bedrooms my mother plunked down on the double bed in one of them. And there she sat.
Miriam was already twirling around, looking, touching. The curtains held her. The bedroom curtains of her memory had been thin and straight, uninterrupted by fold or ?ounce, and very unlike these great white billowy things with ruffled edges swelling above their tiebacks.
My father and Joey came in with the trunk, my father dragging from the front, Joey pushing from behind. My father figured my mother needed encouragement. "There ain't nothing to worry about," he told her. "We're doing okay."
How could they be doing "okay," my mother wondered. Everything was in such a tumel-a mishmash. She didn't even know how much they were being charged, and when she asked my father, he said he didn't ask and didn't know.
And about being Jewish? Had my father told the lady?
Again no. "You want the first thing out of my mouth should be 'Hello, shake hands with a Jew'?" my father asked my mother. If the boys didn't tell her-and so far they hadn't-he wasn't going to say anything to anybody until they were safely settled.
My father went outside to thank the boys. They were on the walk, already leaving. "Say," he asked them, "ain't it written somewheres that a little child shall lead them?"
"Yes sir," T answered. "Isaiah 11:6."