by Sonia Pressman Fuentes
When my family was living in Long Beach, Long Island, in the early ’50s, Father decided that we should take a trip back to the Catskills. Since we no longer owned a resort there, now we could go “like guests.” We would stay at one of the local hotels and be tenants instead of landlords. Knowing my father’s views on paying rent (“money down the drain”), and eating in restaurants (“I have better food at home”), I did not look forward to this vacation. Something always went wrong on those infrequent occasions when Dad paid rent or ate in a restaurant. But I brushed my fears aside and prepared for the trip.
Father decided we would return to Monticello (“the Garden Spot of the Mountains,” the signs proclaimed) in mid-August. So Mother and I spent July shopping in New York for proper outfits for me. One never knew when the son of a New York garment manufacturer might be dropping by at the hotel’s casino and “a girl had to be dressed.” Mother had the quaint idea that love always bloomed when a young woman was “dressed” and I didn’t want to disabuse her of that notion.
Finally, the big day came and we all piled into the car, loaded with suitcases, cartons, my father’s fishing equipment, and enough kosher food for several trips (“God forbid, you should get hungry.”).
When we reached Monticello, we discovered that “the Garden Spot of the Mountains” was in the throes of a polio epidemic. Residents and guests had been advised to avoid swimming pools and crowds. As a result, hotels, rooming houses, and bungalow colonies were closing for lack of business. In view of this, we decided to abandon our summer vacation and return home as soon as possible. We would stay overnight at the rooming house of Mrs. Perel, who lived across the street from our former colony on the Port Jervis Road and drive home the following morning.
That night we all went to a local delicatessen to have a kosher meal before tucking in for the night. We gorged on gedempte– stewed chicken, kasha varnishkes–buckwheat groats with bow ties, and kishke–stuffed derma (stuffed intestinal beef membranes). Then, we bedded down for the night. Mother and Dad had a large double room and I a single across the hall.
At about 3 a.m., I was awakened by a throbbing in my upper lip. I got out of bed, went to the mirror, and looked at my face. My entire upper lip was swollen to such proportions that it hung over my lower lip. Three pinpoints appeared in the center of my upper lip, out of which a sticky, yellowish liquid was oozing. My knees began to shake. The thought that kept going through my head was, “No one will ever kiss me again, no one will ever kiss me again, no one will ever kiss me again.”
With this thought reverberating in my mind, I quickly made my way across the hall to my parents’ room and knocked at the door. I expected that it would take a few moments before my parents awakened and opened the door. To my surprise, Mother opened the door immediately, and behind her I saw my father, bent over the basin, throwing up. Father was again suffering from a case of “indigestion” (we found out years later that he had gall stones). Apparently, something in the dinner the night before hadn’t agreed with him. Mother was sure it was the kishke –it always was.
When Mother saw my overhanging lip, she shrieked, “Oy, gevald!” –“Heavens!”, and asked me what had happened. I told her I didn’t know, but perhaps it was bedbugs or some vile Catskills disease that lingered in the mountain air. Whatever it was, I asked Mother to have Father drive me to the doctor in town immediately. Mother said, “How can Daddy drive you to the doctor? He’s sick himself.” I then said I’d go downstairs myself and hitch a ride to town. Mother absolutely refused to permit this, arguing that I’d surely be raped by anyone who picked me up at three o’clock in the morning. “With this lip, no one will rape me, Mother,” I counter-argued. But, to no avail. At last, it was decided that Father would continue his heaving by himself and Mother would come to my room to calm me down for the remainder of the night. In the morning, we’d go to the doctor.
That morning, we dressed, paid Mrs. Perel (“Are you sure you wouldn’t like to stay a few days more?”, she entreated), packed our things, and left for the doctor’s.
Doctor Cohen examined Father and me. He said that both of us had been allergic to something in the food we had eaten the night before. He gave me an injection to take down the swelling of my lip and some ointment, which I was supposed to apply for the next three days. Father was given a prescription for his digestive problem. Mother was given a sedative.
Father paid Dr. Cohen, and we began the trip back to Long Beach. Our summer vacation was over.
**An excerpt from Sonia Pressman Fuentes’ memoirs Eat First–You Don’t Know What They’ll Give You**
copyright Sonia Pressman Fuentes
This piece was previously published in Passager, the Immigrant Issue (University of Baltimore) 30 (1999): 15.