Amy Got­tlieb is the author of The Beau­ti­ful Pos­si­ble, a nov­el span­ning from 1930s Berlin to the Unit­ed States in the mid­cen­tu­ry to mod­ern-day Jerusalem. Amy is blog­ging here all week as part of the Vis­it­ing Scribe series on The ProsenPeo­ple.

Just about every week­night through­out my child­hood, my moth­er would clean up from din­ner, set up the glass per­co­la­tor, and set­tle in for a vis­it from one of her friends. They would come in rota­tion, most­ly one at a time, a pock­et­book dan­gling from a fore­arm, an unlit cig­a­rette plucked in antic­i­pa­tion. In the late 60s and ear­ly 70s, these beau­ti­ful, per­cep­tive women were wak­ing up to a sense of sex­u­al and per­son­al pos­si­bil­i­ty, yet their roles as tra­di­tion­al wives and moth­ers kept them from ful­fill­ing their deep­er yearn­ings. The char­ac­ter of Ros­alie in The Beau­ti­ful Pos­si­ble derives from the voic­es of these women and the sub­ur­ban set­ting of Bri­ar Wood and the syn­a­gogue-that-is-no-longer-a-tent owes much to my childhood. 

I was nev­er barred from the inti­ma­cies shared at our large kitchen table, and would drop every­thing to lis­ten in. The con­ver­sa­tions were a pas­tiche of domes­tic advice, juicy gos­sip, exis­ten­tial long­ings, and whis­pered secrets — laced with copi­ous laugh­ter and wit. The fash­ions and mores shift­ed over the years: a patent leather pock­et­book would morph into a macramé tote hold­ing a water pipe and a stash of weed pur­chased from a clean­ing woman. As their chil­dren grew, their nascent fem­i­nist yearn­ings grew more furtive; they mar­veled at the friend who fin­ished col­lege and grad­u­ate school, and they passed around a copy of The Fem­i­nine Mys­tique.

Two of these friends were named Ruth and they were like sec­ond moth­ers to me. The first Ruth hemmed my skirts and taught me how to use a sewing machine. She nev­er learned how to dri­ve and her hunger for kitchen-table talk was unquench­able; she knew had to ask point­ed ques­tions that would keep a con­ver­sa­tion unspool­ing for hours. The oth­er Ruth drove thir­ty yards from her house to ours and would park two feet away from the curb, impa­tient to get to the table and start talk­ing. She suf­fered through an abu­sive mar­riage, and for years she would clutch the busi­ness card of a divorce attor­ney she nev­er phoned. Before Rosh Hashanah my moth­er and the two Ruths would spend a day rolling out dough for kre­plach, just as their immi­grant moth­ers had taught them, and on Passover they would take pride in bak­ing mile-high sponge cakes that seemed to reach the ceil­ing. Their Jew­ish­ness had noth­ing to do with the syn­a­gogue or with Torah, but was expressed in their fas­tid­i­ous hol­i­day bak­ing, bar mitz­vah prepa­ra­tions, and in con­ver­sa­tions that were tinged with a mix­ture of cyn­i­cism, doubt, wis­dom, and deep love. 

In 1972, my father died of a sud­den heart attack, and the kitchen table became a gath­er­ing place for grief and new kinds of rev­e­la­tions. My moth­er even­tu­al­ly land­ed a job, remar­ried, and found ful­fill­ment in her new life. Friend­ships inevitably realigned and the two friends named Ruth no longer vis­it­ed. My moth­er took up quilt­ing, and for the next twen­ty years the table would become the gath­er­ing place for women who craft­ed, their busy hands arrang­ing fab­rics in pat­terns of fly­ing geese and Irish chains. 

In time, the two women named Ruth moved to oth­er cor­ners of the coun­try and even­tu­al­ly passed on. The quil­ters relo­cat­ed to warmer cli­mates. My moth­er is now 86, and every week she and I sit at the same kitchen table and talk about the two Ruths. She shares sto­ries I hadn’t heard before, embell­ish­es the leg­endary ones, and adds a new lev­el of com­men­tary. We want­ed every­thing,” she recent­ly told me. We want­ed this life and we want­ed some­thing else too.” This is Rosalie’s con­flict, and she was the char­ac­ter I knew most inti­mate­ly, as I had heard the cadence of her voice all my life. I am grate­ful for my moth­er for allow­ing me a place at the table; I was once a silent daugh­ter who eaves­dropped on their inti­mate con­ver­sa­tions, but even­tu­al­ly I added my voice to theirs and wrote them a book.

Amy Got­tliebs fic­tion and poet­ry have been pub­lished in many lit­er­ary jour­nals and antholo­gies. She has received a Lit­er­ary Fel­low­ship and Res­i­den­cy from the Bronx Coun­cil on the Arts, and an Arts Fel­low­ship from the Drisha Insti­tute for Jew­ish Edu­ca­tion. She lives in New York City.

Relat­ed Content:

Amy Got­tlieb is the author of the nov­el The Beau­ti­ful Pos­si­ble, which was a final­ist for the Edward Lewis Wal­lant Award, Harold Rib­alow Prize, and a Nation­al Jew­ish Book Award. Her poet­ry has appeared in On Being, Ilan­ot Review, One (Jacar Press), SWWIM, Blooms­bury Anthol­o­gy of Con­tem­po­rary Jew­ish Amer­i­can Poet­ry, and else­where. She lives in the Bronx.