On a Saturday noon in October, 1952, Rosalind Green came tripping down Twenty-Sixth Street in downtown Birmingham in her new black patent leather pumps. She had a date to meet her mother for lunch at the Bohemian Bakery. She'd taken the bus up from Tuscaloosa that morning because it was a football weekend; the Crimson Tide was playing the Georgia Bulldogs at Legion Field. She had another date--a real one with a man--that afternoon for the game.
She had sensed that her mother had had an ulterior motive in setting up the lunch, and she thought she knew what it was. In fact, she could tell that her mother, dropping broad hints, had wanted her to guess. Her mother's ploys bothered her, but she went along with them anyway.
She swung open the sun-streaked door and scanned the bakery. Her mother was nowhere in sight, but someone else--she spotted him at once--was waiting for her. She was certain of it.
He was standing awkwardly, as he gazed nervously around the room with a worried expression on his face. This is my mother's doing, Rosalind decided. She felt an annoyed satisfaction at having correctly predicted this.
My mother's such a busybody, Rosalind thought. Always interfering. Still, he's not bad-looking. Not bad-looking at all. Mentally she ticked off his features: blond hair, green eyes, tall and slender, but with round cheeks like a boy's.
Fearlessly, she approached him. "So you're the one my mother's trying to fix me up with."
She watched him blush. He's not as quick as I am, and he never will be, she thought. ³It's all right,² she said. "I won't hold it against you. We might as well sit down. Mother's late, as usual."
Which wasn't entirely true--the lateness, that is--but she was apt to make statements if she thought they sounded good.
She led the way, and he followed her like a puppy.
He relaxed, looking grateful, and remembered to take her coat, only it was a jacket, and drape it over the heart-shaped wire back of her chair. Confident of her attractiveness, she smoothed her skirt under her. It was pleated, the fabric a black-and-white houndstooth check. She was also wearing a white short-sleeved sweater with a sweetheart neckline and a heart-shaped locket with no one's picture in it. Her face, too, was heart-shaped, with a widow's peak, her dark brown hair curled crisply, softly. Her eyes were large and brown. A bright red lipstick was applied perfectly to her lips.
"I'm Robert Appel," he said then, feeling her vibrancy, thinking that he was shy and she was not, thinking that she must be outgoing and positive, and he was not. But would like to have been. And liked it in her.
Rosalind was used to being indulged because she was pretty. She accepted indulgence, she expected it, yet she was dissatisfied. Deep down, she felt neglected. She didn't think that she was taken seriously. Not by her parents. Her brother Irvin, two years older--now he was taken seriously. He had gone to Duke, and now he was at Harvard Law School. When Rosalind was finishing high school, her father had taken her aside and said in an undertone, as if he were afraid of finding out, "I guess you want to go to college, too." "Yes, I would, Daddy," Rosalind replied. "All right," he said. "I want you to have the opportunity. We'll do what we can. We'll send you to the University of Alabama. I'll do without a new winter coat this year."
She had wanted to cry out with rage and pain at his pitiful gesture of sacrifice. It filled her with shame, but all she said was, "Thank you, Daddy." Because she couldn't bear to disappoint him. She realized that to him the sacrifice was real and great. Yet the wound festered. Why didn't they want better for her?
True, Irvin was going to school on scholarships, but Rosalind thought that she could have gotten a scholarship, too. Hadn't Miss Linton, her Latin teacher at Phillips High School, said that Rosalind was the best student she'd ever had? And years before, in Hebrew class at Temple Beth Sholom, she'd beaten out all the boys, yet they went on to be bar-mitzvahed, and of course she couldn't. All her life she'd been a top student, but the idea of sending her to a top college hadn't occurred to her parents. The University of Alabama was what they offered her, and she accepted, determined to make a success of it.
And she was making a success of it. Life at the university was dominated by a rigid social structure of sororities and fraternities. Even before Rosalind went down to Tuscaloosa, there was a lot of gossip going around about who would be rushed, and who wouldn't. All the other Jewish girls Rosalind knew were practically apoplectic with worry on the subject. They threatened to drop out of school, or worse, if they weren't pledged by one of the two Jewish sororities. Rejection was viewed as a fate worse than death. Everyone said that nice boys wouldn't date unpledged girls.
When Rosalind left for college, her parents settled an allowance on her, out of which she was expected to budget her expenses, and it wasn't enough to support living in a sorority house. She could only afford to live in the dorms, but she didn't confess this to anyone. Instead, she insisted that she didn't want to belong to a sorority, and everyone she said this to gasped at her heresy, which pleased her.
Nevertheless, she couldn't help being flattered by the ardor with which the sororities pursued her, competing against each other, deluging her with phone calls and invitations. While other girls grasped at the straw of any encouraging word, Rosalind Green was beseeched to join both sororities. Why? Because she was smart and pretty and popular. Because she'd attract the right kind of people; she'd make the sorority look good academically: she was universally considered a definite asset. But Rosalind serenely refused all entreaties. Sororities were full of snobs who looked down on everyone but themselves, she said, a dismissal which both infuriated her would-be sisters and made them want her more, like a boy chasing a girl playing hard-to-get.
Rosalind believed what she said, but the deeper reason behind her behavior she kept to herself. Still, someone guessed anyway, and when the word got back to Rosalind's mother that her daughter had been made an offer to join Alpha Gamma Kappa at a steep discount, Alice Green was livid. She called Rosalind up and said that no daughter of hers was going to accept charity. Rosalind, who had already turned the sorority down, was aggrieved. Who did her mother think she was? The offer was also unthinkable to her. She didn't want it known--and she was sure it would get out--that she was a poor ward of the sorority. She didn't want to feel that she would have to pay for her upkeep by being brilliant and by reflecting her brilliance on less well-favored sisters, who happened to have more money. Her mother and she were fighting on the same side. Rosalind wanted all her brilliance to reflect on herself.
All the girls vindictively prophesied that Rosalind would be ostracized, that no Jewish boy would ask her out, that no Jewish girls would become friendly with her, because she lived in the dorms. Rosalind appeared unaffected by their gloom-and-doom pronouncements.
The pledge season got tenser and uglier. It reached rock-bottom when a Jewish girl from Montgomery killed herself by jumping out of a fourth-story window on the campus, after she was rejected by both sororities. The suicide and the outrage that followed it bolstered Rosalind's attitude with an unshakeable moral conviction. Her rejection of sorority life gained the status of a cause. She set out to prove the predictions wrong, and she succeeded. Boys called her constantly; members of the Jewish fraternities, weren't put off at all by her unpledged status. She had a different date every night. She basked in her popularity and in the sorority girls' envy. She thought of herself as setting an example, if not a precedent. No longer would exclusion from sorority life signify social death.
Rosalind continued to live in the dorms. The next year, and the year after that, incoming girls sought her out for advice. How had she managed it--to survive, even to thrive outside of a sorority? She shrugged airily. Wasn't it silly, she said, to think sororities so important that you'd kill yourself if you didn't get into one? Like that poor girl. What a waste. Sorority life was like a crutch, Rosalind said. If you weren't already crippled, you got along better without it.
In the changed atmosphere after the suicide, other girls began to follow Rosalind's lead. She took pride in having made it acceptable, even desirable, to live in a dorm.
Rosalind was on the Dean's List every semester. Her major was Home Economics, a practical course of study which nevertheless indicated some of her uncertainty about her future. Thus far, her sole employment had consisted of working as a salesgirl in Roman's Department Store during summer vacations in Birmingham. In her classes at the university, Rosalind pursued an interest in textiles; she even took a course in weaving. When asked about her plans after graduation, she talked about a career in retailing, about eventually becoming a buyer for a department store, maybe even Roman's. Mr. Emil Roman himself had offered her a job there--anytime she wanted, he said. Alternately, he promised her references. Her last fall in college, Rosalind was seriously contemplating a move to Atlanta.
These were her thoughts when this man appeared, summoned by her mother to offer her a different future, one for which her education had also prepared her. "I'm Robert Appel," he said, across the clean, worn, linoleum-topped table. "I guess your mother already told you about me." He paused for Rosalind's answer, a pause in which she smiled at him like a Cheshire cat, neither confirming nor denying. She was thinking of how her mother wouldn't dare do more than hint of him, because she was afraid of her daughter's scorn. And Rosalind knew it was likely that, had her mother laid her cards on the table, she would have exclaimed to her angrily that she had all the dates she wanted, and she didn't need her mother to find them for her.
Uncertain, unencouraged, Robert began talking. It was as if he'd prepared an introductory speech and couldn't think of what else to do except present it to her. He had grown up in Bessemer; now he was practicing law, he said, with the biggest Jewish firm in Birmingham. As he was speaking, a large group of customers came in, among them Rosalind's mother. They were in animated conversation. The Bohemian Bakery was one of two delis in Birmingham, and was popular with the after-temple crowd, which often included Alice Green. Rosalind's mother was the director of the United Jewish Fund, and sooner or later she came into contact with every Jewish family in Birmingham. "Here you are, I see you've already met," Alice said on seeing them. She approached their table rapidly. Rosalind frowned; her mother couldn't have chosen a more public place for this lunch. But that was what she wanted, Rosalind thought--to show off her daughter and this eligible man to all her temple friends.
Robert had stopped speaking in mid-sentence when Alice arrived; she had to introduce them both to a lot of people Rosalind already knew. Like a flock of birds, the incoming group settled down. Rosalind picked up her menu, glancing at Robert. He looked slightly stunned. Rosalind began to feel sorry for him, for having been pushed into this situation by her bossy mother.
"Let's order, Mother," she said. "I have a date for the game at two," reminding them both that her time was valuable. "Of course," said Alice, darting a nervous look at her daughter. Often when they were together, Rosalind, so pretty, careless, and confident, reminded Alice of other girls she had grown up with in Louisville, Kentucky, girls who had snubbed her because she was plain, her family poor, and she had to dress in hand-me-downs and cast-offs from other families.
Growing up in a tough immigrant neighborhood, Alice was the ringleader of three younger brothers, a tomboy who got into fights. Yet, when she became older, she had desperately wanted to be accepted by the girls, but they had rejected her. She wanted to be feminine like them, but she didn't know how to transform herself. Her mother was of no help to her. She was always preoccupied with Alice's brothers and with eking out a living by running a tiny corner grocery. Alice's father was forever in shul, studying and discussing the Talmud with his contemporaries.
Now that she was a middle-aged woman with a husband, nearly-grown children, and a career, Alice always wore a girdle and stockings, low heels, and neat tailored suits when she went out. She put on perfume and jewelry. Yet her hairstyle was severe, her make-up confined to lipstick and rouge. She looked competent, business-like, eminently presentable, but not lovely or feminine. When her daughter had turned out to be so pretty, Alice had encouraged her femininity, lavishing on her daughter all that she had never had--plenty of dolls and tea sets and beautiful, brand-new clothes. She protected Rosalind from what she thought were rough influences. She had never even allowed her to learn to ride a bicycle, for fear that she might injure herself.
Rosalind soon developed definite tastes, and was disdainful of her mother's. Since high school, she had selected her own clothes, stylish separates and filmy dresses for formals, which she bought from Roman's with her employee's discount. She craved popularity and was naturally flirtatious. It seemed to Alice that, in her femininity, Rosalind exceeded her own expectations for her, and she was in awe of her daughter.