|Excerpt from the chapter
... Isa at her
dressing table with a lighted match, warming a tiny pan of
black mascara, globules of which tipped each eyelash and
highlighted the shining green shadow on her lids; Isa whose
wide mouth became a vibrant gash of red; Isa whose Tatar
cheekbones were painted high to ensure a mask so striking,
so individual that no one could mistake her for any other
woman. To me she was unique, she was theatre, a magnet, a
world of secret promise. Isa Kremer was an empire in which I
Her hair, jet black, parted in the centre, drawn back
fiercely in a chignon, proclaimed Pavlova; her earrings, her
jewelled fingers tapping secret codes, flashing emeralds,
diamonds, sapphires stolen cunningly in flight to exile.
When Isa had a last secured her makeup, patting the greased
colours with a feathery pink puff, I could tell she—I—was
ready to face the world.
As I grew into adolescence, I became aware of her body, and
then only because I saw the identical pattern fitted onto
her daughter: short-necked, high-breasted, hipless,
long-legged for such squat women. But Isa's shawls, trailing
skirts, and voluminous sleeves craftily covered multitudes
of roundnesses. No sagging was to be observed, nothing but
energy, as she prepared herself to receive Russian friends
for lengthy dinners that began while it was still light and
went on long after I had to go home.
Teek and I were welcomed to that round table of celebrities,
where expansive Chaliapin's basso profundo laughter mocked
ambitious Sol Hurok, already grasping for world-wide
recognition as the impresario.
It was in Isa's dining room that everything Russian came
alive. The tiny grandparents would scuttle from the kitchen
bearing fruit soup or succulent Chicken Kiev. Confined to
backstage, they would disappear, muttering to themselves.
Who made all that? Not Isa. It must have been hired help in
the kitchen supervised by the unacknowledged grandparents.
Who were the other men surrounding Isa? For there were no
other women at that groaning board. Actors? Singers? Agents?
They were refugees from the Russian Revolution, unpolitical,
fleeing both Whites and Reds. They were artists grasping for
a foothold in "the land of opportunity" to continue their
What I saw, what I heard, was laughter, a joy I'd never
before known. What difference did it make to me that
Russian, French, and broken English bounced around the noisy
table like ricocheting projectiles—jokes, arguments,
opinions? Did they hear each other? Who cared? This was
life! In my home there was no time for me to be heard, but
for some reason these strange people liked me! Yes. These
adults asked me questions, listened to my answers.
One giant of a man, with a voice deeper than any I'd ever
heard, was delighted to put me on his knee.
"Shtota koi, little Sara, shtohochesh?"
What did I want to be? I'd known that since I was three. And
here in this place, with these thrilling performers, what
else could I want but to be as glamorous as Isa, as talented
and famous and adored?
"Oh, please," I declared breathlessly, "pujalasta—ACTRISA!"
"Bravo, little one!" He rose majestically, lifted me to the
floor, and called for a toast. Everyone stood with glasses
raised. Bravo! Cheers! They drank deeply, vodka to my ginger
ale, and one by one smashed their glasses against the unused
fireplace in my honour! And this gentle giant, whom Isa told
me to call Chaliapin, beamed at me, "Zemechachina!
And where was Teek? Smiling, mumbling sotto voce in any of
the four languages at her command, with an adult toss of her
beautiful auburn hair, what was she really saying? I think
now that I cared little about Teek, her feelings, her
situation. She was so grown-up, always studying, reading
books by writers I didn't know but made sure to read and
then didn't understand. Within a couple years she'd
introduced me to bookshelves of Oscar Wilde, Omar Khayam,
Anatole France, Edna St. Vincent Millay, and to a panoply of
characters that my now adolescent heart fell in love with:
Heloise and Abelard, Salome (with illustrations by Aubrey
At Isa's table there was one quiet man, only occasionally,
gently, offering a phrase, a word, a comment. He was Isa's
manager. And he lived in the same house. He was Greek. He
was frequently out of town booking tours, so far out of town
that he died in South America while booking Isa's Farewell
Grand Tour. I knew there was a mystery there, a mystery of
love between Isa and this man, but I was a child and could
not penetrate it. Finally a ninth-grader, another new
friend, a very sophisticated German girl, told me that
George—ah! that was his name!—was more than Isa's manager.
Isa was George's mistress. His what?
"Isa and George are not married but they do things to each
It took me time to absorb that. Time to refocus on my
picture, my fantasy of Isa bountifully distributing her
largesse to me.
Isa was the one who reserved an opera box for Teek and me
whenever we went to the theatre, and it was there that I
first saw "live" dancers. An opera box! Teek and I were
twelve or thirteen by now and sufficiently conscious of our
appearance to preen for special occasions. An opera box was
such an occasion! But would people stare up at us? At me? On
buses and subways, in movie theatres and restaurants,
terrible moans and kicking at everything would signal the
start of my sister's epileptic fit, and I felt everyone
staring at me. I hated it. Now, at the theatre, I'd wait for
the house lights to go down before I took my place; then the
stage, bright with the real world, protected me....