Mrs. Parmenter’s Dress – Lois Barr

Louisville, February 12-21, 1937

Bessie sucked in her stomach and pulled slowly at the side zipper.   It closed! She stepped onto the wobbly wooden toilet seat and tried to see how she looked in the little mirror over the sink. The golden orange silk set off her light brown eyes and honey blonde hair. She took a deep breath and put her palm on her newly slender waist. The beaded sleeves were very long, so she tucked them under.   On Bessie, who was four feet ten, the three quarter length gown was full length.   As Bess picked up a hand mirror and turned to see the beadwork in the back, the bathroom door flew open.

Oy gevalt! What are you doing in Mrs. Parmenter’s dress? Get down off that toilet! Who stands on a toilet?”

“Oh, momma, it’s so exciting. I’ve been invited to play a recital at a very elegant club.”

Nu, what kind of a club?”

“The Pendennis Club.”

“The Pendennis Club. That club vat don’t allow Jews! There you vould never play.”

“But Momma…”

Sha! I forbid it. You won’t play anywhere you can’t go in the front door. Take that dress off before you pop the seams. Do you know how long your father worked on that dress to pay Mrs. Parmenter for your lessons? He made the pattern himself from a picture of that Duchess of Vindsor in the newspapers. Two days I work on that beading. I could have gone blind. And Italian silk, that cost a fortune. ”

Momma pulled her down from the toilet and shooed her hands away from the zipper. “Let me unzip this. You can’t breathe in this dress much less play piano. You take this dress back tomorrow. Why would you want to wear a dress to look like that divorced woman, that Vallie Shimshon? Instead of standing on toilets looking at yourself, you should go and help your father. He has to save his strength for the cutting. Now that the lights are back, he’s going to work on the bills, although who knows when his customers will ever pay us. They all want we should finish their garments on time, but vould they pay on time?”

Unlike so many, the Toplanskys had been spared the devastation of the flood. It seemed like a miracle that the water had reached the barber shop three doors down and stopped.   And yet Momma was so cross with everyone lately. She was especially cross with Bubby, Bess’s grandmother.   Since Poppa’s hands had started to tremble, Momma had more work than ever. What if Poppa got worse? Or maybe she was out of patience because she herself was getting sick. Bess had heard her throwing up in the bathroom the last few mornings. She had to be worried about money. With the flood and so many people without homes, without work, who would be able to afford one of Poppa’s fine suits?

Bessie changed into the itchy long underwear and the old flannel dress her mother made her wear at home.   She stroked Mrs. P’s silk gown and brought it to her face. It smelled like lavender, like her teacher. Bess slammed her fist on the sink. She’d been cooped up at home for over a month. Without Annabelle to help out, she’d become the laundress, the cook, and who knew what else. Enough. She wasn’t taking the dress back, because she was playing the concert. They needed the money, so that was that.   She put the dress under her little daybed in the kitchen. She would think of a way to get out of the house next Sunday afternoon.

Bright and early Monday morning, Bessie turned her attention to breakfast and the day’s soup. There had to be to enough to feed the four of them and their presser Jackson. Goodness, for a skinny man, did he have an appetite! Jackson had been sleeping on a palette in Poppa’s tailor shop downstairs since the West End had flooded and the rooming house where he lived had toppled over.

There wasn’t much food on hand. Peeling the last five potatoes in the bin, Bess knew that after lunch, she would have to walk in the freezing cold to Zimmerman’s. Colder than the wind would be the look on Mrs. Zimmerman’s face when Bess signed the book to buy on credit. Bessie peeled some wrinkled carrots and parsnips and chopped an onion. Guttenu, she hoped Mrs. P’s dress wouldn’t smell like fried onions. With the last bit of butter from the icebox, she browned everything in Momma’s dairy stock pot and added a lot of water. The soup would be lunch and dinner. In the cupboard Bess found a fistful of barley and then she added some rolled oats. That would thicken it all. She crumbled the last of her mother’s dried herbs into the pot and was spooning in the salt, when her brother Calvin came into the kitchen rubbing his eyes and asking where breakfast was. Since he’d worked the flood rescue boats, he’d become very demanding.   Of course with his big brown eyes and wide smile, he could con anyone in his family out of anything, especially his big sister. And he had shared his pinochle winnings with her. So Bessie got out the last bit of sugar she’d saved and poured it into his porridge.

That night Bess couldn’t fall asleep.   There wasn’t anyone to chat with in bed since Cousin Dottie had gone back to help her family clean up the damage at their store and apartment. For the moment it was still fairly warm in the kitchen from the evening meal, but soon the furnace would die down, and it would be cold. She could hear her mother and father squabbling in the bedroom.   She knew what they were saying even though she couldn’t make out the words. Sometimes she stood by the door to hear their whispered quarrels. Her mother was worried because Poppa refused to see Dr. Rubel about the tremors in his hands. Her father would change the subject to the big new order for alterations of uniforms from Ft. Knox. The bushelling, he called it. Then her mother recited the list of everyone they owed: the doctor, the pharmacy, the rent, the coal bill, the grocers, the notions store, the electricity, the phone. Bessie worried they would lose the shop or, God forbid, the apartment and everything they owned. She had seen so many people with all of their furniture and clothing stacked on the walk in front of their houses.

Bess pulled the feather quilt up over her ears and replayed the argument with her mother. It would be almost impossible to get away and to keep the concert a secret. If she said she was visiting Dottie, her Tante Minye would tell her mother that she hadn’t seen her. It wasn’t fair. Her younger brother Calvin came and went as he pleased, and since he’d helped rescue people with the rowboats, he’d become a hero. Bess punched at her pillow.

“Just go to sleep and you’ll figure it out tomorrow,” she told herself. She tried a trick Mrs. P had taught her to focus: a visualization of herself playing the Mozart piano concerto 21 in C major. She heard the violins of her high school orchestra and the flutes.   She could see the music teacher grimacing at the violin section who were always off-key and waving the baton in regular beats of a march and the teacher’s sweet smile as she nodded to Bess to come in and Bess could feel her right hand playing the opening cadenza and then she heard the reeds and then her hands marching crisply up and down the keyboard to a crescendo and then it was morning and the kitchen was light and then the violins were off key again and then Calvin slammed the parlor door.

Bessie threw on her coat and boots and ran down to the cellar to put coal in the furnace.   This dratted basement! She’d gotten to know it all too well in the last month. As a kid she’d been terrified of the basement, but now she was determined to keep her whole family from going under. They (well, everyone but Calvin) had sandbagged outside around the windows, and Bessie and Dottie had kept the floor mopped dry, but finally when the water began seeping in too fast, they had had to put their metal tub full of coal up on sawhorses loaned from the Lutheran church next door. Bessie grabbed the shovel and filled the belly of the furnace and lit the pilot light. Sometimes her father’s hand shook so much, he couldn’t light the furnace. The rumble of the motor as it went on always scared her. But scarier still was that she could see that there was only enough coal for a few days. There was no doubt in her mind about the concert. It paid ten dollars; moreover, Mrs. Parmenter had assured her that if they liked her, there would be other musical soirées.

The week was passing slowly for Bessie even though she was busier than before. Not only did she have to take care of everything, but now she had to practice at least two hours a day. On Wednesday, Annabelle appeared looking gaunt and carrying a big bag of groceries. Momma rushed up to hug her and Bubby looked up from her darning to give her a nod.

Oy vey! Look at this,” her mother said as Annabelle pulled out cans of tuna and green beans, bags of coffee, corn meal and a big glass jar of beets.

“I could of brought y’all more, but I know you folks don’t eat most things my brother brought. And don’t ask where he got all of it. Lordy, lordy, I hate to think of it.”

Momma wiped a tear from her eye and told Annabelle how worried she had been about her. Annabelle told them that she and her momma and brother had been staying in a white folks’ church, but that they didn’t feel welcome there.   So, as soon as her brother could get a boat, and Lord knows where he got that boat, they rowed to her auntie’s house up on a hill, where had stayed dry the whole time. Her family and cousins packed into her auntie’s two room house, just like Noah’s Ark.

Then Annabelle asked Bessie Lee (Annabelle still called her that) and Momma how the family had done. Momma just shook her head and told Annabelle to sit down and she’d make them some real coffee. Bess sat down at the table, but her mother motioned her to go down to Poppa’s shop. Bess knew better than to try to listen in. She was just grateful that Annabelle was back.

The next two days were easier, and Bess found time to practice all of the pieces for the program. She still hadn’t figured out how to get away from home for the concert. Annabelle had great ideas, but Bess knew her first loyalty was to Momma.

Sabbath it was cloudy and cold but no rain. As always, they walked to synagogue.   Heading south the air smelled cleaner, not the nasty mix of gasoline and dead fish of their neighborhood. Momma and Bubby trudged slowly with Bess. Calvin and Poppa had gone earlier because Poppa always chanted the first part of the service. Up in the women’s section, Bess mouthed the familiar prayers, but she couldn’t concentrate. How would she get away to practice piano today? Her mother, who was a stickler for two hours of daily practice, never allowed her to play piano on the Sabbath.

After schul they went home and had some rye bread and a salami that Mrs. Linker had brought on Friday. Momma tried to refuse the charity, but Mrs. Linker said that since they had been sent all the way from a kosher butcher in Cincinnati, it was a sin and a disgrace not to take them. And anyway didn’t Momma always provide food for poor Yeshiva students? And didn’t she have her presser staying with them? Momma shrugged her shoulders and took the salami. She knew that everyone in the schul would hear that she’d taken charity, but she had just wanted Mrs. Linker out of her kitchen.

After lunch Bess said she was going next door to visit her friend Naomi. Naomi’s father was the pastor of Concordia Lutheran Church, and Bess knew her mother trusted the Eberhards. They’d lived side by side on East Broadway as long as Bess could remember.

While everyone else took a Sabbath nap, Bess went over to the church, around to the back door, and down the basement stairs to the Sunday School. It smelled musty but the basement was dry. She went to the farthest end of a long hall to the kindergarten room where she she could play the upright piano and no one would hear. In the opening of the “Moonlight Sonata,” Bess heard footsteps behind her. She turned around with a start. It was Reverend Eberhard in work gloves, overalls, hip-high boots, and a scowl.

“Does your mother know you’re practicing on the Sabbath?”

Bess told him that she just needed to get away a bit because she had been so busy all week. She asked where Naomi was, and Rev. Eberhard said she was up at Atherton High fixing meals at the shelter. “If you are going to work on the Sabbath, you might want to go help out at school.” Bess said she had to get back home and thanked him for the use of the piano. She asked him when he thought the high school would open again. With a shrug he said he thought it would be as soon as the Red Cross could find shelter for the colored folks staying there. Walking home she devised her plan. She let herself into their store holding onto the bell on the door and called her girlfriend Phyllis from the shop telephone, the only telephone on their block, besides the church, of course.

On Sunday the Toplanskys worked just like a regular day even though they didn’t open the shop. Poppa adjusted the blinds so no one would see he was working at the cutting table, and Momma sat up in the balcony overlooking the workroom with the sun pouring in and stitched away at soldiers’ uniforms while Calvin offered to make deliveries to their Jewish customers. Bess knew he would do anything to get out of the house and run around with his friends.

The sun. The blessed sun. A sunny, sunny Sunday. Bess did her chores rapidly. She’d stoked the furnace and made oatmeal for breakfast, and they’d opened a big can of vegetarian vegetable soup for lunch. From Annabelle’s provisions, she’d put up beets and cabbage for dinner.   Thanks to a huge plank of plywood Jackson had placed in their backyard, Bess was able to hang laundry on the clothesline without sinking into the swampy ground.   After that she had worked on scales and exercises to limber up for later. Bessie prayed Momma would believe that she was going to her friend Phyllis Liebson’s to prepare algebra assignments. She had informed her mother that Reverend Eberhard had said school would reopen very soon. Then she asked permission to stay at Phyllis’s house for dinner which Momma didn’t like because she thought the Liebsons were careless about how they kept kosher. But somehow the sunny day had improved her mother’s disposition, and Poppa had been working hard the last few days without any weakness in his hands, so her mother had told her to go and study hard and enjoy the time with her friend. She gave Bess a little linen handkerchief she’d embroidered with fleurs de lys to give to Mrs. Liebson. Her mother hated for Bess to go anywhere empty handed, and there was nothing else in the house to send. “Enjoy yourself,” she said as she kissed Bess’s forehead.

Bess carried her music and the silk dress hidden in her school satchel. She hurried up Barret Avenue to Morton Street.   She could see Phyllis watching for her at the big bay window in the front parlor. Bess changed into the gown in Phyllis’ bedroom. In the full length mirror, Bess was pleased to see she didn’t look too bad in the dress. Phyllis had a cream colored satin flower that she pinned at her girlfriend’s ear. Then she dabbed some lipstick on Bess and stood back to admire the effect. As they waited for the driver that the club was sending, Phyllis kept telling her how wonderful she would play and how perfect she looked. Bess knew that was a lie. She had folded the sleeves and the dress was big in the shoulders and tight across the bust. Bess worried she might pop a seam during one of the reaches to the high and low octaves. Phyllis told her not to worry because she looked as skinny as a bean pole. Also a lie, but Bess had lost several pounds since the flood. Phyllis wanted to go to the Pendennis with Bess. She’d turn the pages. Impossible. Phyllis couldn’t read a note and was a total butter fingers. Phyllis said Bess would love the dinner. Her father had eaten at the club once with a client, and he had said the food was exceptional. All the Liebsons were good eaters, so Bess knew this was not a lie. Speaking of food, Phyllis offered her a snack. Did she want to have a bite before the concert? But Bess was too nervous to eat before a concert. Just then the car pulled up out front and a handsome colored man in a gray uniform came up to ring the doorbell. Bess kissed Phyllis cautiously so as not to smudge her lipstick.   Her girlfriend yelled out as Bess got into the car, “I can’t wait to hear all about it. You’ll be swell.”

Introducing himself as Luther Blue, the driver apologized to Miss Bess for being a few minutes late. In this comfortable car Bess felt like Hollywood stars she saw in Movietone newsreels. Maybe someday she would be driven up to Carnegie Hall in a big black Oldsmobile with leather seats like this. But the boarded up houses and stores as they headed downtown halted her reveries. Luther assured her he would get her to her concert right on time because he knew which streets were passable.   He said that the Pendennis Club had been busy all during the flood because the police had set up headquarters there. The Club, Luther explained, was the highest point in all of downtown Louisville and it had been like a little island in a rushing sea of brown, icy water. He had driven the Police Chief himself to all kinds of emergencies because so many police cars had gone under.   Luther’s stories made the trip through the quiet downtown go by quickly.

“Here we are, miss. Now I have to go run some errands, but I’ll be back to pick you up after your concert, after y’all all eat your supper. Good luck.” Bess smiled sweetly and thanked him for driving her, but she remembered that Mrs. Parmenter had told her it was bad luck to say good luck before a performance.

She walked carefully up the front stairs. At the top a butler opened the door and welcomed her. Her face flushed from the warmth as she walked in. The place was ablaze with light everywhere. The black and white marble floor glistened. As the butler led her upstairs to the library, she saw gentlemen in tuxedoes heading to the third floor. In the library, the butler led her to a red leather chair next to a roaring fire. He noticed her feet were dangling, so he pushed up an ottoman.   Bess asked him who would raise the piano bench for her, and the butler answered that he wasn’t sure they’d ever raised it. “I don’t reckon anyone so tiny has ever played here. I’m sure we can give you a cushion.”

“No, a cushion will move. How about one of those big books?”

“Yes miss, I know just what to use,” the butler grinned. He pulled out a big book from the telephone alcove and left Bess alone to fret about not reaching the pedals or popping a seam. The longer she sat there, the warmer she got. Her palms began to sweat, and she worried she’d perspire right through the linen arm shields she’d worn to protect the dress. Mrs. P had said they would have someone good to turn the pages, but so far no one had come. After what seemed a very long time, a grim faced woman in a black velvet gown walked in and introduced herself. She pulled off a white glove and shook Bess’s hand. Bess was too embarrassed about her clammy hands to hear the woman’s name. Bess handed her the music and tried to explain the order of her program, but the woman just motioned Bess to follow her upstairs into the ballroom.   Crystal chandeliers and candles at every table made the soft yellow walls glow. At the microphone stood a familiar portly figure, Mr. Ballard, who owned the flour mills and whose chauffeur and butler wore uniforms her father had made. He bowed at Bess and smiled. As he raised a big glass of amber colored liquid, the crowd got quieter. “Gentlemen, as we celebrate our opportunity to rebuild a greater Louisville, we also celebrate the young talent who grace our fair city. This is a young lady I’ve known since she was a babe crawling around in her father’s shop. Please welcome the winner of last year’s Kentucky State Music Competition for piano, Miss Bess Toplansky.” Mr. Ballard bowed at Bess and stepped forward to shake her hand. “We’ve missed seeing you all.” Later, Bess would replay his words and mutter to herself, “Yes, and you’ve missed paying Poppa, too.” For now she just sat down at the Steinway grand piano and shook her head no at the woman who was opening the first piece of music. No need for sheet music for Chopin’s Polonaise in A flat major op. 53. She could play it in her sleep.

Flashbulbs popped as she began to play. Throughout the Polonaise, Bess was distracted by the low hum of the men who had resumed their after dinner conversations.   There was polite applause when she finished. As she stood and bowed the photographer took another picture, and it crossed her mind that her picture would be in the papers. Her parents only read the Yiddish press, but a neighbor, probably Mrs. Eberhard, would be sure to spot it, clip it, and bring it over. Oy vey, what had she gotten herself into.

Focus on the music she told herself. The Bach prelude went better.   Now she would play the “Moonlight Sonata” by Beethoven. With the opening chords her fingers began to appreciate the velvety smooth action of the Steinway, she fell into a reverie sensing herself and the audience settling into the music. They loved it and as she stood to bow, she knew they would request an encore. Mrs. P had told her to play the “Hungarian Rhapsody. ”   It never failed to impress. She started with an imposing lift of her hands and attacked.

Toward the end of the piece as her left hand reached the lowest keys and her right hand raced up the higher octaves she leaned into the keyboard and played with an abandon and delight she hadn’t felt in a long time. When she finished she raised her head up and her hands went up into a high arch and fell dramatically on her lap. The men cheered as she stood to take a bow.   Mr. Ballard came up to thank her and to walk her off the stage. He accompanied her downstairs and gave her a hug and a wink as he left her in the library. “Honey, we’ll be asking you back here, for sure. Now, y’all tell your momma and daddy hello for me, you hear?” He handed Bess an envelope and told her to wait there, that the butler would come fetch her for her dinner. Bess thanked him effusively and stood there thinking she had played the Liszt piece just like Mrs. P’s recording of Fanny Davies. She smiled at herself in a mirror the way she had smiled at the crowd and started twirling about. She was in the middle of taking a deep bow when the butler walked in and applauded. She repeated the bow and he invited her to dine. Bess was hungry, very hungry. She followed the butler through the hallway. He carried her coat, her music, and her satchel and finally at the end of the hall, he opened a door to a narrow passageway leading into the kitchen. A tall woman in a white bonnet and apron showed her the way between the ovens and grills to a butcher block table set for one. “Here, miss, sit down. Let me take your things. Y’all must be hungry.” The kitchen was buzzing with women washing and drying dishes and polishing silver, and Bess’s mind was racing. She sat down dazed and disappointed. She certainly hadn’t expected to eat her supper alone in the kitchen. The cook placed a plate in front of her with a big round reddish pink slice of something in the middle.   It smelled smoky and sweet. Ham.   It was topped by a yellow ring of pineapple and a cherry, and it made her stomach do a flip flop. She jumped up and told the cook she wasn’t feeling well, and she’d be going home. “But Luther ain’t back to fetch you. How about some coffee or some tea? A li’l bit of toast? Or maybe a glass of sherry would settle your ….”

Bess interrupted, “Please, just tell me how to get out of here.” She grabbed her things and checked her coat pocket for the envelope.

As Bess burst out the back door, the woman yelled, “Now y’all be careful, them steps is slippery.” Bess pulled the silk dress up to her knees and hurried down the brick alley. She was trying to remember Luther’s route so she wouldn’t lose time getting home. It was sunset, and her mother would expect her home from Phyllis’s soon.   Anger boiled inside her as she ran down the alley. Her mother had been right. She never should have set foot in that place. That Mr. Ballard in his fancy tuxedo that he probably hadn’t paid for and that stuffy lady in her long black dress and gloves. The nerve of them to shuffle her back to the kitchen and then to serve her ham.   She was out of breath when she turned down Third Street where she had to slow down because the water was up to her ankles. She sensed a car was following her, so she broke into a run worrying at the same time that the car would splash her or she would slip. Her mother would kill her if the dress got ruined.

“Hey, Miss Bess, where’s the fire? Weren’t you going wait for me to drive y’all home?” Luther Blue pulled his car up slowly just ahead of her. He ran out and opened the door for her and helped her get her dress and coat tucked inside before he closed the door and got back in.

“Now what’s the big hurry?” Luther asked but Bess was too angry to talk to anyone. She just shook her head and sat there blinking to keep back the tears.

“I hear y’all played some mighty beautiful music, so why are you so upset?”

Bess took a big breath and tried to talk to him, “I just… I never… My mother was right, I never should have played there.”

“Well, I know they pay a pretty penny.”

“Oh, they paid me, but it was humiliating to be shooed off to the kitchen to eat all by myself.”

“Well, I’m sure that kitchen wasn’t empty lest you mind eating with colored folks.”

“Oh, no! No, you’re right.   I wasn’t alone and the cook was very kind,” Bess surely didn’t want to hurt the man’s feelings. “It’s just that they fed me ham and I’m … We’re Jewish.”

“Well, what do you know?   I bet you are the first Jewish gal to play a recital at the Pendennis,” Luther laughed, and then he saw in the rear view mirror that Bess wasn’t laughing along. “But I can see why you’d be angry. Yes, indeed I do…”

Bess realized that the car was heading back to Phyllis’s house so she interrupted him, “Please, sir, Mister…”

“Just call me Luther.”

“I don’t live on Morton where you picked me up. We live on East Broadway by Barrett across from the Ballard Mills. At 1121. That was my girlfriend’s house… My family, well my mother told me I couldn’t play that recital and she was right,” Bess slammed her satchel on the seat.

Luther headed to Baxter Avenue so he could come down Broadway and let Bess off in front of her house.   As he got to the Lutheran Church, he slowed down to look for the numbers.

Bess said, “This is it, but could you take me to the alley?”

“Whoa, this gal walked in the front door of the Pendennis, and now she’s sneaking down alleys?” Luther laughed again, but Bess still wasn’t laughing. He stopped in the alley and let her out. Bess shook his hand and thanked him.

“Everything’s going to be fine. You just stop fretting,” Luther said as he doffed his cap and got back into the car.

Bess listened to the rumble of the Oldsmobile on the bricks and tried to think what she would say to her parents. It was just past their dinnertime, so her mother would be busy cleaning up. As she stood in the alley for a moment to catch her breath, rats banged about in the garbage cans. She darted across the plywood plank so fast she almost tripped, but she steadied herself to keep from making a racket.

Bess changed out of Mrs. Parmenter’s dress in the dark hallway. She was shivering from the cold. She took off her muddy shoes, put her wool coat back on and tiptoed upstairs. When she opened the door, the kitchen smelled of cabbage. It was strangely quiet and dark. There was a light under the door of her parents’ bedroom so she knocked on the door.

Cum arein,” her father told her to come in. Poppa had lit the monkey heater, so the room was warm. He was lying on the bed reading the Forverts. Bess could just imagine her mother yelling at him that quilts were for lying under not on top of.

“Bessele! Thanks God you’re back! Your momma called everywhere and no one knew where you were. Mrs. Leibson said she hadn’t seen you.”

“Oh, Poppa, I feel terrible. I lied to Momma. I did play the recital. But where is everyone?”

“Everyone went by Tante Minya’s. I stayed here to wait for you.”

Bess hated to miss a visit to her favorite aunt.

“So you played a recital at that fancy club?” her father asked as he folded the Forward and put it on the nightstand. The paper trembled like leaves in a storm. Bess longed for the father whose hands cut the paper patterns with precision and glided through dark woolens with shiny scissors.

“Yes, I played…”

Nu, what did you play?”

Bess told him everything: the chauffeur, the fancy marble floors, Mr. Ballard, the photographers, the Steinway grand, and her program.

Nu, did they like it?”

“Yes, they stood and applauded, and I played the “Hungarian Rhapsody” as an encore. It went perfectly, Poppa. But after the recital they shuffled me off to the kitchen and gave me a plate of ham. I was so furious I left. Momma was right: I never should have played there. I am sorry I lied. ”

“Come here and don’t cry,” her Poppa caressed her and stroked her hair. “What a beautiful flower in your hair. You look so beautiful, Bessele, don’t cry.”

Bess wiped her eyes and pulled away from her father. She took the envelope out of her pocket, took out the ten dollar bill, and handed it to him.

Guttenu! So much money! This you must keep for yourself, Bess. Save it for your studies.”

“No, Poppa, I did it for us. This will pay the rent and the coal bill.”

“Don’t worry about the bills. Let me handle that,” her father put the money back in her pocket. Bess knew Momma would take the money, but she had no idea how her mother would punish her for disobeying.

“But Poppa, you can’t work as much now, and Momma’s getting sick…”

“My hands are not so bad. I just need to rest sometimes. And what makes you think your mother is sick?”

“I hear her throwing up in the bathroom every morning…”

Her father pulled on Bess’s hands and sat up in bed, “I have some good news to tell you about Momma. Cum, let’s go to the kitchen. You haven’t eaten supper and your hands are icy cold. Let’s heat up that delicious beet and cabbage soup you made for us. Or is a girl who plays “The Hungarian Rhapsody” on a Steinway grand piano for the gentiles too good to eat borscht?”


A Spanish professor at Lake Forest College, Lois Barr co-produced a documentary, “Isa: The People’s Diva.” She published “Isaac Unbound: Patriarchal Traditions in the Latin American Jewish Novel” as well as articles and reviews on Spanish and Latin American fiction. Her creative work appears in literary magazines, web zines and anthologies. She has been nominated for a Pushcart for fiction and for poetry.

2 thoughts on “Mrs. Parmenter’s Dress – Lois Barr

  1. Laura McCrea

    Wonderful story. To the author: My sister forwarded it to me as she was surprised at the mention of our mother Naomi and Grandfather Pastor Eberhard! Would love to hear how you knew them. And in a even bigger coincidence, Ellen Morris is a friend of mine!

  2. Ellen

    I love the tone and detail of this story. It captures a period of history we shouldn’t forget. Nicely done.


Leave a Reply

This site uses Akismet to reduce spam. Learn how your comment data is processed.