(This story is a major re-working of “Looking for Dena,” a piece that I wrote for Hartford Woman back in May 1987.)
It is a small netted gold-colored bag with a fleur-de-li on the front and a key chain at the top. When I was little, I thought it was real gold and regarded it as one of my very best-est possessions, right up there with the miniature white plastic tea set my Grandma Banks had sent me.
“You were playing with it when Grandma was visiting,” Mom told me once with a reminiscent smile. She had been very fond of her mother-in-law. “And she said, ‘All right, Tammelah, you may have it.’”
Gold or not, there was something magical about that little key-chain purse for me, just as there was about all the other items that had at one time or another belonged to my father’s Romanian mother. Her blue mixing bowl. Her brightly patterned tin sifter. Her long filmy scarf with its pink, orange, and yellow leaves or the flower-decorated gilt box that she had given my mother to keep handkerchiefs in. Something of her love of color and her quiet charm lingered about them, and I cherished them. I even carried the key-chain purse with me as my “something old” when I got married.
But Dena was present in another way at my wedding, apparently. Dad’s sister Ethel came up for the event. It had been awhile since we’d seen each other. She hugged me and stepped back, studying my face. She turned to the others in the room. “She has my mother’s eyes,” Ethel said, her own face suddenly alight.
My own memories of Dena were very hazy. After my grandfather Max’s death in 1946, she’d lived with Ethel out in California, only coming back East for short visits. The last visit had been when I’d been about four, the time of the key-chain purse. So she existed in bits and pieces for me…a pretty woman in photos with thick white hair and silver-rimmed glasses...a soft Romanian voice remembered from the times that Dad had put me on the phone with her.
My mother had stories about her, though. Like I said, they had been close (“I don’t care which one of my sons she marries,” my grandmother had gone on record as saying, “just so long as she marries one of them.”), so Dena had given her stories into Mom’s keeping, much as she had given her the fancy box, the blue mixing bowl, and the flowered sifter. And, as I became more involved in women’s studies as a grad student, I studied those stories, trying to find the real woman between the lines.
The first story involved Dena’s arrival at Ellis Island when she was about 12. Some helpful official, intent on Americanizing/homogenizing all foreigners, changed my grandmother’s name. Not her last name, oddly enough, but her first name. “You must be mistaken,” the woman told Dena. “Your name is Lena.” So “Lena” she stayed for the rest of her life, even though the name wasn’t as pretty or as musical as her real one.
The second story took place many years later, when Dena, a married woman with six children, found herself pregnant again. She had had her first four children, including my father, within a five-year period and was just plain worn out. Ordinarily a quiet religious woman, she rebelled. Thinking that she could induce a miscarriage by over-exerting herself, she walked her husband’s fields with the same fervor she usually saved for her prayers. Of course, she probably only succeeded in making herself physically stronger. But she did have some trouble later in the pregnancy and felt horribly guilty about what she’d tried to do.
The last story belongs in part to my parents, who had just lost their first daughter, an eighth-month-old baby, to a virus. Now my grandmother knew that it was strictly against Orthodox Jewish law to step foot on a cemetery before a monument’s unveiling a year later. But Dena, now a widow, had also lost a 26-year-old son in a car accident some years before. She saw my parents’ grief and went to the cemetery.
Three faces of Dena…and here I was now, trying to fill in the missing features. A search through the old Hartford City Registers turned up a mention of “Lena Cohen, milliner”; a letter to the Vital Records Center in Hartford yielded my grandparents’ marriage license. I grilled my Great-aunt Anna, Dena’s sister-in-law and friend, for all the bobbe-mysehs (literally – and appropriately -- “grandmothers’ stories”) that she had, which were considerable. I was also reading and re-reading Anzia Yezierska’s Bread Givers (1925), the story of an independent-minded young Eastern European Jewish woman living on the Lower East Side. Sara Smolinsky was much more outspoken than my grandmother had been. But the stories my mother had given me made me think that Dena hadn’t been quite as demure and easy-going as people had thought – that there’d been a strong will lurking under all the gentleness.
It all came together for me in a paper called “Bread Givers and Looking for Dena: The Problems of Being a Jewish Feminist in 20th-Century America.” OK, so the title was a mouthful and a dry one at that. But I was pleased with what I’d written and even happier when I got the chance to deliver it at the Eleventh Annual Conference of the New England Women’s Studies Association. My journalistic career seemed to be at a standstill: I had quit my arts column at Hartford Woman and was beginning to think that a career in academia had definite possibilities. After all, I had landed both a women’s studies summer grant and this spot on the conference, hadn’t I?
The talk went very well. The dean of library services at Southeastern Massachusetts University requested a copy of the paper. Then a short woman with curly brown hair, glasses, and a rapt expression came up to me. “Call me,” she said, handing me her card.
Her name was Roberta Burns-Howard, and she was the new editor of Hartford Woman. When I called her, she cut straight to the chase. “I make a point of watching the audience when I go to a talk,” she told me, “and the point when people began to get interested was when you were talking about the personal stuff.”
In other words, about Dena. Almost five pages of “scholarly” writing and two paragraphs about a woman who had simply gone about her life, raising seven children and burying two…and now Roberta wanted me to create a story out of those paragraphs….
“Looking for Dena” ran in Hartford Woman in May 1987. Mom met me when I got off work, carefully carrying my grandmother’s blue bowl. It was mine now, she told me. I had earned it.
I also got my old job back at Hartford Woman. I didn’t work with Roberta long, as it turned out: she was offered an editorial position at a local business journal and was gone by the end of the summer. But she made me realize that I was meant to be a writer, not an academician, and I have always been grateful to her for that.
So, there I was, happily writing my arts column and various features (the great thing about working for a small paper is that you get to do all sorts of writing) and working with some incredibly thoughtful editors. Gradually, I got brave enough to do something I’d always wanted to do: write stories. And one of the first stories I wrote was about Dena.
The Dena who came to me was the woman of my mother’s second story, the one who had loved her children but who hadn’t been able to accept that last pregnancy. There were things that I’d rebelled against in my life, too. So I took that feeling and hoped that it would help me get inside her head. The result was “The Dybbuk,” a story that one editor commended not only because it “told the story of an ambivalent pregnancy (a voice hard to find in published materials)” but also because it had “an ethnic dimension” that she was interested in.
More bobbe-mysehs followed. Not all of them were about Dena. Two focused on my maternal grandmother, Esther, whom I had grown up with and loved dearly; and the others mostly dealt with a handful of great-grandmothers and great-aunts who were taking shape in my head, asking that their stories, too, be told. But Dena somehow ended up with the most stories; and one of the three immigrant stories that actually ended up being published was “Dena,” the story of the name lost at Ellis Island.
I went on to write other things and didn’t give my bobbe-mysehs much thought. They were stepping-stone stories, I told myself, not really worth the re-writing. But not long ago, I began looking some of them over again. There was much that I’d cut now, I thought; and, yeah, I’d probably ditch a good portion of the dialect, too. And yet…there were images and turns of phrase that showed me I’d been on the right path, even if I’d often been stumbling along it. Then I pulled out my old Hartford Woman story. And suddenly, it hit me. I had found Dena. But in looking for her, I had also found myself and the work I was meant to do.