Bia and Abe
By Marlene Roberts Banet
Bia and Abe Schneider had lived together for eight years, since Bia was two and Abe sixty-five. Bia found nothing strange in their situation, actually she never thought about it. It took entering first grade for Bia to realize that she was different, starting with her grandfather. It wasn’t only that the other parents were younger than Poppa Abe; they dressed differently and spoke without accents and on subjects he made fun of—like football. How to deal with these differences became a greater source of anxiety the older Bia got and the more she wanted to fit in. So when the opportunity came to show off her grandfather in a flattering way, she grabbed it.
It was October, 1956 and Bia was in the fifth grade at P.S.114 in Belle Harbor when Mrs. McKendry gave class 5-2 their first assignment for marks. That night Bia waited for her grandfather to come home from the union hall, ready, with class notes in her hand. She started to read them out loud before he took his cap off.
“The 5-2 class presentation is to be on an event, or series of events, of major importance to American history. The class will be graded on choice of topic, oral presentation and use of visual aids. Originality will count.”
“Major event," Abe said. "Craziness. What do eight-year-olds know from such things? Ridiculous. Teachers should teach and students should study. Why are they called teachers if...?”
“They'll throw me out of school,” Bia said. “You don't know. This is how it’s done now.”
Bia was accustomed to how her grandfather reacted to new ideas. Either he would talk furiously and at great length about them or he would dismiss them with a guttural, “Uggch!” That night the project led to him talking furiously and finally reached its climax with Bia screaming, “You just don’t want to help me.” Her grandfather hollered back, “I don’t know what that woman who teaches you expects.” Bia said, “I need your ideas, all the other parents help their kids. Your ideas are better.” The flattery worked and Abe told Bia they would figure something out together. And what Bia said was true, she did want his ideas. When she was at home with her grandfather, or with him and his friends, she felt like she occupied space in a command post: a place where people worked together to accomplish great things. Yet her friends never saw her grandfather in that place. This project would change things. And they had to sit, listen, and be ready to ask questions. Those were the teacher’s rules.
The next night Bia and Abe went downstairs to the basement. File cabinets lined three walls. Poppa Abe explained that the presentation should teach the other children about real history—history he lived through. In that way, Bia would also know that everything she said happened.
“It has to be original, to get extra credit.”
“Between what’s here and what’s at the library, we have more than enough material, and original, too.”
Bia hugged her grandfather, to which he responded with a loud “Oy” and a reprimand to watch out for his arthritis.
When Mrs. McKendry posted the schedule on the bulletin board, Bia saw she would be fifth. The first four listings bored her, nothing at all original: George Washington, Betsy Ross, Christopher Columbus, and The Boston Tea Party. Big deal. The Triangle Fire wasn’t this everyday stuff that everyone knew.
The day of her presentation, Bia came fully armed with three shopping bags. And for good luck, Poppa Abe gave Bia his best campaign pins to wear.
“I like your buttons,” Mrs. McKendry said, as Bia walked to the front of the class. Bia looked down at her sweater. “The pin on my right is the simple ‘Stevenson in 1956’ pin; the other’s special. From directly in front it is a picture of Adlai Stevenson's face, and if you look sideways, the button says, Vote For Stevenson.” Bia twisted back and forth to demonstrate.
“I can’t see.” Harry and another student came forward.
“Look at the pins later,” Mrs. McKendry said. “Bia is ready to start.”
Setting her visual aids on the teacher's desk, Bia announced, “The Triangle Fire of March 25, 1911: The Rise of the Proletariat.”
She held up a poster reading, THE PROLETARIAT.
“Could you please tell the class what ‘the proletariat’ means?” Mrs. McKendry said.
“The proletariat means the good people.” Bia thought everyone knew what proletariat meant, so she hadn't looked it up in her Webster's Dictionary. Now she was afraid that it could be a Yiddish word. Mrs. McKendry didn’t say anything else, so Bia continued: “The early 1900’s was a time when capitalists controlled America and capitalist bosses took advantage of their underpaid and overworked laborers.” She held up photos of men and women jammed together at sewing machines in a sweatshop. Shuffling her materials, she held up her next poster, THE WORKERS.
“The workers, poor immigrants, came to this country for a better life and to escape the Cossacks. In America, there were no Cossacks, only management. The first thing the immigrants saw in New York’s harbor was the Statue of Liberty, a Golden Door to a country where they could breathe free.”
Bia picked up her stack of Ellis Island photos and held up one at a time as she explained them. The first were immigrants on the deck of a boat, bundled in scarves, heavy coats and blankets. Standing shoulder to shoulder, many women held big-eyed children in their arms. Another showed people lined up, waiting their turn to walk up the long staircase at Ellis Island. Pointing, Bia showed the officials at the staircase’s top, their job being to identify people with infirmities or defects and send them back to Europe.
“These are our relatives, our families. If you look closely, you might recognize someone. We are the lucky ones; we made it up the stairs and through immigration.”
Handing out the photos, Bia didn’t like what she saw. Most of her classmate’s faces appeared blank, or worse, bored. A few didn't even look at the pictures, other kids were doodling, and Bobby Sakowitz, the boy she liked, had his head on the desk.
Bia knew from when her grandfather spoke, and from his comments on other people’s talks, that she needed to switch her subject and get the audience’s interest, which the pictures weren’t doing.
“Great men fought to unionize the poor workers. Samuel Gompers, Eugene V. Debs, and my grandfather, Abraham Schneider, someone you know.” Bia hadn’t planned to mention her grandfather, not yet, but she needed something out of the ordinary. From the first day of school the kids had asked questions about her family, questions she wouldn’t answer, so maybe they now would listen, hoping to get some answers.
Still confused on what was going wrong, Bia told herself to stay focused. She arranged her papers again and got to her next poster. Bia held up a card stenciled in red letters and decorated with red flames coming out of the words: THE TRIANGLE FIRE.
She thought the class had become more attentive.
“At the end of the work day on March 25, 1911, fire swept through the Triangle Shirtwaist Company's New York factory. The building had ten floors and the firemen’s ladders couldn’t reach that high. The fire escapes didn’t work and the exit doors were blocked. One hundred and forty-six people died, most of them young immigrant girls.” She halted for a few seconds, the way she had practiced. What Bia thought of as the high point of her presentation was about to come.
In the basement of Bia's house, Abe had photographs taken at the Triangle Fire by a police photographer. When Bia saw them, she wasn’t sure if she should use them. “They’re a little scary,” Bia said. Poppa Abe told her that's why they were so important, they proved, without a doubt, the great tragedies that occurred before unions and labor laws. “Words tell a story,” he said. “These photos prove it.”
Bia still didn’t know if the photos were okay, yet Pappa Abe seemed so sure. The photos definitely showed originality in addition to what her grandfather had lived through and gone on to change.
“The photographer told me these photographs never got published,” Abe said. “That means it’s an exclusive. How much more ‘original’ do you want? We need to be careful, though: some aren’t for children.”
Poppa Abe made two piles, asking Bia to help. She let him do it on his own. In the end, Bia took out two large manila envelopes and marked one, Take; the other, Keep Home. She put the photographs into their respective envelopes.
Bia took the envelope and passed the first three pictures out.
The first made it to the second row before Steve Levy, who sat in front of Bia, half-stood in his chair. “This is unbelievable!” He passed the photo to Bobby. “Real blood and guts.”
Only then did Bia look at the pictures still in her hand. One was a close-up of burned faces, another showed people running from the factory with their clothes on fire, another showed people jumping from windows. These were the wrong pictures. She put away the pictures she still held and went to get the others.
“Wow! Were those people?” Bobby no longer was resting.
“Give me that.” Bia raced to get the picture from Bobbie and in doing so, somehow Bobby fell off his seat and onto the floor. Bia grabbed for the photo while Bobby screamed, “Get off of me.”
“Enough.” The teacher’s voice brought order back to the room.
Bia returned to the front desk and put the remaining photos away.
“No more pictures, okay?” Mrs. McKendry said.
Bia’s face burned as she kept her eyes down and tried to decide what to do next.
“Where did you get these pictures, Bia?” Mrs. McKendry said.
“My grandfather was at the Triangle Fire,” Bia said. “He saved thirty-eight lives and people still think of him as a hero.” Bia found herself writing her report as she spoke, and it wasn't exactly from her research. Abe had been at the fire, watching from the street.
“What does your grandfather do?” Mrs. McKendry scribbled notes on Bia's evaluation sheet. “For a living?”
That was the question Bia always worried people would ask. “What does your grandfather do for a living?” Poppa Abe had retired three years ago, so he didn’t do anything for a living. They lived on Social Security and his union pension. That was another difference separating her grandfather from the other fathers and not a good difference. Once she had heard someone call Social Security “welfare.” Everyone believed working was good, so how could she explain that a pension wasn’t bad?
“He works with the unions.”
That was true. He just didn't get a salary. He went to the union hall every day, especially during this year’s election. “That's where I got my buttons.” She hoped Mrs.McKendry would compliment her again on the ‘Stevenson in ’56’ pins. Maybe talk about the elections. She didn’t.
“My grandfather is in labor,” Bia said.
“Will he have a baby?” Carol's mother had five children, so she knew what it meant when a woman was in labor. She probably knew that wasn’t what Bia meant. Scattered bursts of laughter erupted.
“Class, clasp your hands on your desk and sit up straight. It's been a long morning and it's almost lunch.” Mrs. McKendry brushed her hand over an empty spot on her desk. “Bia, is there anything else?”
Bia crossed her arms in front of her chest. She stood and waited a few seconds. When she spoke, she put her hands on top of the desk and leaned forward. This was how her grandfather sometimes stood to make a point.
“My grandfather, Abraham Schneider, is a hero to union people. He is being considered to have his picture on a postage stamp.” Where that came from she would never know. There was a plaque with her grandfather’s name on it in the union hall, but no one ever mentioned him being on a stamp. Bia shuffled the few papers still on the desk, trying to think of something to say. The lunch bell sounded and the class started to pack up.
“We'll continue the reports after lunch,” Mrs. McKendry said. “Bobby, you'll go first this afternoon. Class dismissed.” With those words, the weight from Bia chest lifted. Her presentation was over, the afternoon belonged to Bobby. The torture had come to an end. She had wanted to make the class understand her world. That hadn’t happened.
With her shopping bags looped over her arms, Bia was almost out the door when she heard Mrs. McKendry’s voice. “Can I help?” Mrs. McKendry was walking towards her.
“I'm fine.” Or will be, once I’m home.
“I have a question. Do you think your grandfather would speak to the class?” Mrs. McKendry asked. “He sounds like an interesting man.”
The last thing in the world Bia wanted was for her grandfather to talk to the class. She didn't know what he would say. He might say things that showed she lied, that he had never saved lives or been mentioned for a postage stamp. He might talk, call people idiots or morons, or go into a long speech on management versus the workers. The morning had shown that her explaining her grandfather to the class wasn’t easy. It would be better if he wasn’t the center of attention.
“It isn’t possible,” Bia said. “He’s in the hospital.”
“In the hospital?”
The conversation had stopped dead, as if Mrs. McKendry didn’t know what to say. Bia took over.
“Cancer of the pancreas.” This only twisted the truth, it wasn’t a total lie. Her grandfather's good friend, Mr. Newman, had pancreatic cancer and her grandfather did visit him almost every day in the hospital.
“I’m so sorry,” Mrs. McKendry said. “I know you are in a delicate situation. Go home for lunch. Maybe we can talk later.”
Bia didn't know exactly what “delicate situation” the teacher was referring to, but if it got her dismissed, she didn’t care.
Mrs. Pomerantz lived upstairs from Bia and Abe: she came with the house. In return for living rent free, Mrs. Pomerantz cooked, cleaned and did general chores for the Schneiders, the things Bia's grandmother used to do. Mrs. Pomerantz also minded their business at no extra charge. Her family had come from Plotz, the same village in Poland as Abe's mother's family, so Abe said Mrs. Pomerantz was family. Bia didn’t remember her own parents and nobody would talk about them, so Poppa Abe and Mrs. Pomerantz were her family.
At home, Bia’s usual lunch waited on the kitchen table: a tuna fish sandwich, a glass of milk, and a Dugan's chocolate cupcake. When she tried to eat the sandwich she couldn't, so she paced around the kitchen table, turned on The Guiding Light while she waited for her grandfather’s call. She tore off a piece of the cupcake's icing and it was in her mouth when the telephone rang. She spit the chocolate out on the plate as she tried to sound normal.
“So? How did the report go?”
Her grandfather started to talk to someone at the union hall, leaving Bia on hold. She used the time to go over her options. She could tell him she had lied in the presentation and show it was for a good reason. She would figure out the reason later. She could say she had made a fool of herself in front of the whole class, hoping for his sympathy. Or she could say he had insisted on the photographs, making the disaster his fault.
“I'm feeling sick, so I need to stay home,” Bia said.
“And miss school?”
“School doesn't want you when you're sick. You pass it around.”
“Call upstairs for Mrs. Pomerantz to make you some tea. With honey. Drink it before you get into bed. I'll leave after all the campaign workers come.” Abe loved to work with “the young boys,” which meant men the same age as her friend’s fathers. “If you don't go to school, you don't watch television.” A commotion started in the background. Before Bia agreed to her grandfather’s instructions, he hung up.
Abe got home at six. He asked Bia how she felt, and as she talked, he started to make phone calls. Then he started to yell. “Idiots, morons, you called the wrong phone list. You told Republicans to vote. If we lose, that will be the reason!” He took the phone off the hook, saying he had heard enough for one day.
Bia got out the cards for gin rummy which they played until Mrs. Pomerantz announced that dinner was ready. After they ate, Poppa Abe put the phone back on.
The next day, Friday, Bia whispered that she still felt sick. Abe touched her forehead, said it was cool, that she looked fine. He started to say something else when a car started honking its horn. He told her to stay in bed and drink plenty of tea with honey. Two days in a row, loud noises had saved Bia.
Saturday was the day Bia usually spent with her grandfather. The Saturday after the presentation, Abe went to work on the campaign. He told Bia that since she had been sick, she had to stay home.
At six, Bia heard the front door open, so she got into bed. Her grandfather came into her room with a corned beef sandwich, a potato knish and a cream soda. When Bia tried to start a conversation, instead he told her business had to come first.
For the rest of the evening Abe made election calls. When Bia heard him screaming she decided to stay out of his way. On Sunday, Abe went to a meeting and came home late, after Bia and Mrs. Pomerantz had eaten. He didn't ask how Bia felt. In fact, he didn't talk.
Early Monday morning, Abe came into Bia's room.
“You should be out of bed, lying there is bad for your circulation.” Abe felt Bia's forehead. “Get ready for school.”
“I'm on strike.”
“For what?” Abe grimaced. “Better working conditions? Higher pay? Less hours?”
“Okay, I’m joking about the strike. Really, I just don’t feel right. There’s no school tomorrow, because it’s Election Day. So nothing will happen today.”
“I have no time to argue.” Her grandfather walked out of the room and left the house.
That afternoon Bia had made a list:
Call Mrs. McKendry to tell her a miracle saved my grandfather's life. He's home now, still weak and can’t have visitors.
Ask Poppa Abe to send me to a yeshiva.
Return to school. Only write notes because of laryngitis. Talk again when no one remembers the report.
Nothing sounded right.
When Bia looked at her grandfather's face on Tuesday night, November 6th, she knew a terrible thing had happened. He looked very old. Now she asked how he felt.
“Again Eisenhower beat Stevenson,” he said.
“Is it definite?” she asked.
“It doesn’t look good.”
Bia felt bad for her grandfather. She wanted to make him feel better, but couldn’t think of what to do.
Poppa Abe came into Bia's room to kiss her good night. “Tomorrow you go to school.”
“Promise you won't hit me?” Her grandfather had never hit her. Saying it was part of a ritual. It signaled that Bia had done something wrong and she knew it.
“What happened?” Abe asked.
Bia told the story to her grandfather—at least the major parts: how she lied to the teacher about Abe having pancreatic cancer, how she lied about being sick, how she lied about the presentation going well. She left out the part saying he was inside at the Triangle Fire or that his picture might be on a postage stamp. Bia asked her grandfather to figure out what to tell her teacher, so she could go back to school.
“That’s your job,” Poppa Abe said. “I’ll help, though.”
Wednesday morning Abe came into Bia's room early. He still didn’t look well. Bia felt bad about giving him more trouble. It seemed she felt bad about almost everything.
“Have you decided what to do?” Abe said.
Bia handed him the letter she had typed the night before.
Dear Mrs. McKendry:
Please excuse Bia's absence from school. The hospital made a mistake when they said I had cancer. I don't have cancer. Bia had the flu. Today she is all better. Thank you very much.
“You want me to sign this?”
Abe took out his fountain pen, the one he got when he retired, and signed Bia’s letter. “I'm not happy that you lied. That we lied.” He licked the envelope closed. “Still, what do I know? I thought this time Stevenson would win.”
Bia put her arms around her grandfather, her cheek against his chest, and hugged him as hard as she could, unsure of how he would react. Poppa responded with a light hug back, which told her everything was fine.
Copyright © Marlene Roberts Banet 2012
Marlene Roberts Banet was raised in a Yiddish-speaking home in New York. An MBA steered her into a short business career before becoming a professional writer. In 1993, based on three front-page articles she'd written for an alternative newspaper, South Florida’s Jewish Journal hired her. An award-winning journalist by day, at night she wrote fiction, creative nonfiction and memoir. Her publications include Lilith, Hadassah magazine, Americas Airlines and Gettysburg Review. The placement she most wanted, though, was at the Forward, the paper her grandfather had written for in Yiddish. In 2001 she achieved it. A dual French/American citizen, she resides in South Florida and writes a weekly column for the local newspaper.