Al and I headed back to the States after we visited Aunt Tizzy but, unwilling to end our honeymoon just yet, we spent a week at the beach in New London, Connecticut. I’d taken my mother there a few years earlier when her health started to fail so she could get some fresh air, some sun, and perhaps for the first time since she was a child, relax.
That was the trip when I finally got Mama to explain why my family moved to Hartford after living in Boston for eight years. This was a story even Papa wouldn’t tell and I was too young when we picked up and moved to understand why we were leaving Mama’s cousins behind. Mama was so unwilling to talk at first I had to fish the story out bit by bit, like boiled dumplings from a big pot of water.
Sophie and her mother at the beach in New London, Connecticut, 1925
Papa was anxiously waiting on the dock when our boat arrived from Glasgow. He was there with Paul Weissman from Pfizer, who wanted to apologize to Mama personally for all of the trouble she’d gone through to get to America.
Over our first American meal (I’m sure pastrami was involved), Paul said that he’d sent a telegram to the Palumbo family in Genoa and explained our entire situation—Mama’s delay, Papa’s new name, and where they could wire back the diamond money. Paul had the transfer all set up with an associate named Mr. Wainwright at the Bank of Boston. Everything finally settled, he showed us to Grand Central Depot and got us on a train heading north.
As we pulled out of the station, Mama said she couldn’t hear the train whistle over my bawling. I was probably screaming because, even at the ripe old age of nine months, I already knew I belonged in New York City. Mama and Papa, on the other hand, fell in love with Hartford through the train’s window when we briefly stopped there to let off passengers. They watched people bustling up and down Front Street and imagined opening a little grocery in a vacant storefront in the middle of the block. Mama said she wished that she could just hop off the train and start a new American life right then and there.
When we arrived in Boston, we were met by a welcoming committee of at least ten extended family members, some with their arms outstretched to hug us and others eager to hoist our trunk on their backs. Boris, Mama’s first cousin, and his wife Celia invited the whole neighborhood to meet us at a party with enough food to feed the entire Russian army.
Cousin Boris Klein.
Mama admitted that the first day with her family was a little overwhelming. Phillip was happy to be running around with children his own age but she was afraid to take her eyes off of him. After bringing him halfway around the world and nearly losing him in Glasgow, she felt like a mother bear defending her cub. It didn’t matter if the threat was merely a bunch of other little cubs. Besides that, Celia was an overbearing neatnik, and I was a whirlwind of crumbs and drool and sticky fingers. Mama could hardly move without Celia following behind her with a rag and a broom. She was grateful to her family but felt like she was imposing for the hundredth time. She wanted her own life in the United States.
“What’s your plan for the money once it arrives from Italy, Signore Abuza?” asked Boris, Celia’s mild-mannered husband. He was a particularly kind man who’d always dreamed of being a scholar. Just like I imagined singing on a stage, Boris imagined himself behind a big wooden desk with his nose in a book.
“We were thinking about opening a little grocery,” said Papa. “We learned a bit about the produce business coming over here from Genoa, and no one will be able to turn down Jennie’s jars of goulash. My wife knows her onions.”
As the party wound down, my parents presented Boris with a gift for allowing us to stay with his family. One of the things that Mama had managed to pack before leaving the shtetl was her father’s beautiful leather-bound edition of the Talmud. Since he was a boy, Boris had kept a spot open on a bookshelf in his study for the Talmud he hoped to own one day. After opening the bundle they produced from their trunk, he nearly cried with joy and Celia, ever the housekeeper, was right there with a handkerchief to prevent even one tear from landing on his gift.
The twenty books of the Jewish Talmud.
The next day, Mama went downtown by herself to claim the money from the citron shipment. She didn’t trust Papa to do it and come straight home with all of that cash burning a hole in his pocket.
Mama found her way to the bank and showed a young clerk the paper Paul Weissman had given Papa explaining why she was there. The clerk read the instructions, showed Mama to the front door and directed her from the National Bank of Boston, where she had come by accident, to the Bank of Boston, which was just across the street. It was an easy mistake for a woman who knew only a handful of English words.
Mama made her way across the bustling road without getting killed by a speeding horse cart, but picked up the phrase “Fuck you!” from a driver who came within inches of running her over. She wrote it down phonetically in Yiddish in a little black notebook she kept in her pocket. She thought it might come in handy someday.
Boston, late 1800s.
This time in the correct bank, she asked to speak to Mr. Wainwright and was shown to a hard wooden chair in front of a big desk. After a few moments, an older gentleman emerged from the depths of the bank and took a seat behind the desk and began talking. When he realized she had no idea what he was saying, he held up a finger.
“Rosenwaser!” he shouted.
Out came a young clerk who took one look at Mama and smiled. Mr. Wainwright jabbered to Rosenwaser for a moment and then looked at Mama expectantly.
“Hello, Mrs. Abuza,” said Rosenwaser in Yiddish. “Please excuse Mr. Wainwright. His Yiddish is about as good as my Irish jig. He wants you to know that he understands that you are waiting for money from someone in Genoa. All international transfers first go to our branch in New York, so it’s likely that the money is still tied up there. He suggests that you try back in a week. It should have arrived by then.”
“Tell him that if my money’s not here the next time I visit, I’ll dance the Irish jig on his face,” said Mama.
“Maybe I’ll keep that between us,” smiled Rosenwaser.
A month went by. Mama went downtown and met with Rosenwaser and Wainwright every week, sometimes twice a week, and each time they told her there was no money for her. Papa was beginning to lose hope in William and Milly Palumbo and worried perhaps that the new Abuzas had been taken to the cleaners. Mama didn’t. She believed there must be some explanation for the delay.
Boris hardly minded our extended stay in his house. He was so busy with his beautiful new set of Talmud books he barely looked up when he got home from work. General Celia, on the other hand, was much less hospitable to the Abuza battalion. She waged war on our extra laundry and additional dirty dishes as though our dirt was an invading army.
One night when Mama and Papa were out for a walk, Boris and the family received a visit from Mendel Rubins, a neighbor who ran a little Kosher restaurant. Celia showed him to the study and went to make him some tea while Boris pried himself away from the first of his holy books. Mendel went to the special shelf and admired the whole set. He pulled out a thin volume toward the end of the series.
“What’s this one about?” he asked, flipping through the pages.
“The rules governing divorce. It will probably take me ten years to get to that book, though,” answered Boris.
“God forbid you should ever need it,” he smiled, setting it down on the couch beside him. “I came to ask your opinion about something. So many of my my customers are complaining about Mrs. Fishbind, my cook! Her brisket is so tough, customers are losing teeth. The only one who likes her cooking is Shlomo, the dentist.”
Celia returned with the tea and glared at the misplaced volume Mendel had dropped on her couch.
“What you need is a wife,” laughed Boris. “The old widow Fishbind is no substitute for a partner who could help you with your business. Maybe you could even make a few little busboys.”
“Well, until then, the gossip is that your cousin Jennie is quite the cook. Plus, I heard that she and her husband are still waiting for their money from their friends in Italy. And between you and me, there’s no way that money’s coming.”
“We’re all trying to stay positive.”
“Positive won’t put food on the table. Maybe she might want to cook a few nights a week for me? It’s better than sitting here twiddling her thumbs.”
“I’ll ask her,” said Boris. “It’ll do my waistline good to get her out of here. My belts can only take so much more of her cooking before they surrender.”
Boris walked his friend to the front door for a fifteen minute Jewish goodbye. By the time he got back, Celia had already tidied up the teacups and replaced the Talmud volume about divorce in its proper place on its proper shelf.
Tired of being chased around by Celia’s dust rag, Mama agreed to take the job at Mendel’s restaurant. The only condition was that he first let her travel to Brooklyn to visit the Pfizer office to find out what had happened to the citron money. Until our trip to New London all those years later, I never knew that my Mama, who I could hardly picture out of an apron, had gone all the way to New York City by herself to lay down the law with the head honcho of a huge company.
The main entrance of Pfizer Pharmaceuticals, Brooklyn, NY.
Once Mama made it to Brooklyn, she marched directly into the Pfizer office and demanded to see Mr. Pfizer himself. His secretary smirked and told her that Mr. Pfizer was on vacation and wouldn’t be back until the end of the week. Mama said she would wait. She took a seat and sat there all day, and all day the next day. And all day the day after that. Occasionally she would nod off in her chair, but mostly she kept her eyes peeled for anyone who might be the man in charge.
On the fourth day, Mr. Pfizer came tearing into the office like a tornado with two assistants spinning in his wake.
“Who is this?” he barked, pointing at Mama.
“I’m sorry, Mr. Pfizer. Her name Jennie Abuza. She insists on talking to you. She’s been sitting here for four days. Should I have called the police?” asked the receptionist.
“No, no,” tutted Mr. Pfizer. “What can I do for you, Mrs. Abuza?”
“Two minutes,” asked Mama, in her heavily accented English.
“Two minutes? You waited four days for two minutes? I wish I had ten salesmen like you,” laughed Mr. Pfizer, and he showed Mama into his office.
Charles Pfizer, founder of Pfizer Pharmaceuticals.
“Abuza,” he said, stroking his bushy muttonchops. “I remember that name. Aren’t you the woman who had all that trouble in Scotland? With the false arrest?”
Mama nodded. After she explained the money had never gotten to the Boston bank, Mr. Pfizer consulted a number of ledgers on his desk and frowned. The books showed they had paid the Palumbo family in full immediately upon receipt of the shipment of citrons. They were even slated to arrange a second shipment on the same terms, but the Palumbos hadn’t responded to any of their subsequent telegrams. It was like they had dropped off the map entirely.
“I’m afraid that these people in Genoa may have been less than honest with you. I’m sorry I don’t have better news for you, Mrs. Abuza. It seems like you’ve had quite a streak of bad luck.”
“No,” my mother disagreed. “The Palumbos are good people. There is a reason.”
Mr. Pfizer came out from behind his desk and shook Mama’s hand.
"I’m terribly sorry about your money. However, if you ever decide to move to New York, please come see me again. I could always use a persistent saleswoman."
Mama left New York no richer than when she came, but she refused to give up faith in William and Milly, her Italian Passover family.
Three years went by. Phil turned seven. I was four and a half and now singing my first hit song "Ta-Ra-Ra Boom-de-ay" as loud as possible. Moe was born and immediately put his fingers in his ears. And Boris had finished studying the first three volumes of the Talmud.
Mama and Papa managed to move to a little apartment in the same building as Boris and Celia. Because Mama routinely worked grueling sixteen hour shifts at Mendel’s restaurant, she often had to leave Papa to take care of all three of us screaming kids. We got by on Papa’s hash, and Papa got by on aspirin for his splitting headaches.
Over the prior three years, Mama’s cooking had tripled the business at Mendel’s restaurant. She asked for a raise at least once a month but Mendel always had an excuse. One month the butcher raised his prices, the next month the roof needed repairs, and so on and so on. With no hope of finding a better job, she continued to work for next to nothing. Papa managed to pick up a few shifts here and there as a bartender at a local tavern called Herman’s, but neither one earned enough money to make any progress toward opening their own business. They were barely making enough to pay the rent.
I don’t remember much from those years but I will never forget the five of us sitting on a blanket in a park one fourth of July. I watched the fireworks burst into dazzling color over the Boston harbor. Everything seemed perfect to me. Unfortunately, Mama mostly remembered the sadness of those years, when it seemed like all hope was lost.
The years kept slipping away and nothing changed. Boris finished another few volumes of the Talmud. Papa would pish away his meager earnings on card games with his friends and Mama worked harder than ever at the restaurant. She closed up when the last customer left, cleaned the kitchen by herself, and counted up all the receipts. Mendel had taken to stopping by late at night when she was doing the bookkeeping, after he’d had some drinks with his buddies down at Herman’s tavern. My mother was uncomfortable being trapped in the dark restaurant alone with him.
As we sat on the beach in New London, Mama looked off at the ocean and stopped talking for a long time. I’m not sure what convinced her to tell me what happened, but I sat silently as she spoke.
She was scrubbing a sink full of pots one night when Mendel came into the kitchen and hovered nearby, flipping through his stack of bills.
“We had another good day,” she said.
“We’ve had better,” said Mendel. “If you’re going to ask me for a raise, it’s not a good time. They’re gouging me left and right for the vegetables and I’m barely breaking even.”
Mama knew Mendel was lying through his teeth. By now, she was the one who ordered the food, ran the register, and paid the bills, so she knew there was more than enough money coming in to pay her a little extra each week.
“My family needs more money. I’ve worked for you for seven years and I’m not asking for much,” said Mama.
Mendel exploded. “Listen, you ungrateful bitch! This is my building, my stove, and my dishes! When that money of yours comes from Italy, you can give yourself a raise and buy your own restaurant. In the meantime, you should be grateful you have a job!” he yelled.
“Does Boris know what kind of a person you really are? You are a cruel man,” Mama said softly.
“Maybe you're the cruel one, Jennie. Maybe you should be nicer to me and we could work something out,” said Mendel, sidling up to her. He slid a hand up under Mama’s apron.
She grabbed a butcher knife out of the sink, spun around, and held it to his throat.
“Listen, you putz. I built this restaurant. If you don’t want to give me a raise, fine,” Mama hissed. “I’ll even keep working here because I need the money. But if you ever, and I mean ever, come near me again, I’ll make soup out of that pathetic little schmeckel of yours. Do you understand me?”
Mendel nodded his head very slowly. Mama put down the knife and the gutless bully ran out the door.
My parents’ lives would’ve gone on forever in a sad parade of hellish work shifts if it wasn’t for a little bit of divine intervention. A couple of years later, Mama and Papa were woken in the middle of the night by a frantic pounding on their door. Boris stood outside blabbering and gesturing so wildly neither one of my parents could understand him, but he insisted they wake us kids and follow him down to his apartment.
“It’s the most unbelievable thing!” shouted Boris, leading them into his study.
“More unbelievable than a good night’s sleep?” yawned Papa.
“Yes, this is a miracle. A real miracle. Jennie, do you remember when you were first living here with us and I told you Mendel wanted you to cook in his restaurant?”
“How could I forget? It was the happiest day of my life,” answered Mama sarcastically.
“Just listen to me! That day, Mendel took down one of my Talmud volumes and left it out on the couch. I remember it because Celia gave me such a glare when she noticed Mendel was making a mess,” he explained.
“Sure, fine, but what’s the miracle?” asked Mama, eager to get back to bed.
“While I was talking to him, my little Adah heard the doorbell and answered it. It was the postman with a letter marked Special Delivery. She knew she wasn’t allowed to interrupt my conversation with Mendel, so she waited until I walked him to the door to say goodbye before she came into my study to drop off the letter. She stuck it in the book she thought I was reading, but unfortunately, she put it in the Talmud book that Mendel left on the couch.”
Mama and Papa looked at each other, puzzled.
“Enter my neatnik wife! As soon as she saw Mendel at the front door, getting ready to go, Celia went to straighten up the study. First she chased our daughter out of here and then, of course, she put the divorce book back on the shelf.” explained Boris. “And tonight, after eight years of studying, I finally got to that volume. I’m sorry that this letter is so late, but I think it’s for you,” he said, handing over a yellowed old envelope.
The letter was postmarked Italy, October 1887. Mama held the letter to her heart and bowed her head to thank God before she opened it.
My dearest friend Jennie,
Please forgive the lateness of this letter.
I am sorry to tell you my beloved William succumbed to a heart attack three months ago. It has taken me this long to get over the shock of discovering him slumped over his desk. William wouldn't respond so I ran down the street to find the doctor, but it was already too late. There was nothing he could do.
My daughter and her husband came to Genoa and were a great comfort to me. After the shiva was over, they convinced me stay with them in Rome so I wouldn't be alone. I can hardly even remember the few months I spent there. I know I must have slept and eaten each day only because I am here now, writing this letter. But I felt stronger little by little, and a few weeks ago I finally came to the decision it was time to get on with my life. I made my way back to our house in Genoa. This week I even opened the fruit stand again.
The only thing I couldn’t do was go into William's study. It was just too painful. However, I forced myself to face my fears today and sat in William’s old chair at his desk and cried. When I wiped my tears away, lo and behold, there on my husband's desk was the enclosed letter he had written to you. It must have been lying here since the night he died.
After reading it, I can only tell you how mortified I am that you still have not received your money. The last thing I wanted to do was cause you and your dear family three months of fear. Please accept my deepest apology.
Give my love to all of the Abuzas,
Mama thrust the letter at Papa’s face so he could see that she’d been right, all these years. She put Milly's letter aside as she wiped away some tears. Then she read aloud William's letter of explanation from June 18, 1887.
Dear Mr. and Mrs. Kalish, or should I say Abuza?
Paul from Pfizer let us know you have a new Italian name. I hope you have all finally arrived safely in Boston after your delay in Glasgow.
Now, let us attend to the happy business of getting you your money. Although Pfizer was supposed to send payment to my bank in Genoa, the money was instead sent to another bank in Rome. I went all the way to Rome to sort things out and your money is on the way, but it will be waiting for you at the National Bank of Boston, not the Bank of Boston as we originally thought. The bank in Rome only does business with the former, not the latter.
The money should arrive in two weeks. I know we agreed to a 5% interest rate but Milly insisted on sending an additional 5% as a gift to help get you started in America. Once again, we thank you both from the bottom of our hearts for trusting us in this business deal.
With much love,
William and Milly
I actually saw a few tears in Mama’s eyes as she remembered how Papa picked her up and spun her around the room. After eight years in Boston, her new American life was finally about to begin.
The next morning, Mama strode proudly into the National Bank of Boston. This time, unlike her first trip downtown eight years prior, she spoke much better English and walked out with her money in a matter of minutes. Then she went to Mendel’s restaurant where she was supposed to work a full lunch and dinner shift.
Mendel was seated at a table reading his newspaper when she arrived. She didn’t say a word as she breezed into the kitchen, slammed around a few pots, and returned with a big kitchen knife in one hand. With the other, she plunked a bowl of soup down on the table in front of her vile employer. He lowered his paper to find two small dumplings floating in Mama’s perfect chicken broth.
“My family and I are leaving Boston. You’ll need to hire a new cook. And make sure it’s a man. If I hear from my cousin that you hired a woman, I’ll come back here and serve you a bowl of soup that looks just like this one, but you’ll provide the dumplings. Do you understand me?” she asked, lowering the knife toward the front of his pants.
Mendel nodded his head.
She started to leave, but she stopped and pulled something out of her pocketbook. She rifled through her little black notebook, looked Mendel square in the eye, and delivered her farewell address.
After that, Mama and Papa gathered us up, thanked her cousins, and boarded the first train to Hartford, that little town they’d loved so much from the window of their train to Boston eight years earlier. What started out as a plan to open their own small grocery was about to blossom into Abuza’s Family Restaurant, home of the world-famous Lestz goulash.
“Ta-Ra-Ra Boom-de-ay!” is a 1891 American folk song originally thought to be written by Henry J. Sayers of Missouri, though Sayers later stated he first heard it performed in the 1880s by Mama Lou, a black singer, in a well-known St. Louis brothel. It quickly spread to England and France and became wildly successful across the continent. In 1943, Mary Martin performed “Ta-Ra-Ra Boom-de-ay!” in a movie musical called Happy Go Lucky .
Coincidentally, Martin credited her first success on Broadway to Sophie. Both women appeared in Cole Porter’s 1938 musical Leave It To Me. Mary’s big number in that show was a tune called “My Heart Belongs To Daddy,” but after a month of rehearsals, Sophie knew that Martin wasn’t quite landing the song.
“Mary, do you have any idea what the lyrics to your song are insinuating?” asked Sophie.
The rookie had no idea. When Sophie told her it was all about sex, Mary turned bright red.
“How do I get that across?” questioned Mary.
With a fifteen minute tutorial from The Last of the Red Hot Mamas, Martin nailed the double entendres and went on to become another superstar of the Great White Way.