The Lady in the Red Hat
The brass chain rattled as Mama opened the apartment door, peeked through the narrow slit, and asked, “Who's there?” We rarely had company and it was much too early for my older brother to be coming home from school.
“Investigator from Welfare,” the woman replied. Mama let in a young and beautiful lady. A fancy red hat with a feather perched on the top of the investigator’s head. She stood in the small hall and peered into the dimly lit kitchen. The light from the bare bulb just above the tall metal stove shone on the big pot of simmering chicken soup.
Maybe an investigator was like the fairy godmother in Cinderella. I wished I had a red hat just like hers. She looked sort of like the grownup girls who hung out at the candy store except she was wearing a pale gray suit. When mothers on our street dressed up in suits they wore black or navy blue hats with veils. Mama wore babushkas, and she didn't have a hat. I wondered why the investigator had come to our house.
“I'm Miss Smith.” Turning to me she asked, “What's your name?”
Mama stood in the kitchen doorway with her arms folded across her chest. I wanted to hide behind Mama like I used to, but now that I was in first grade I couldn’t act like a baby so I stared down at the floor. “Tell the lady your name,” Mama said. I whispered my name.
“Do you go to school?” the lady asked. I nodded.
Meanwhile, Mama put on a clean apron, with tiny blue flowers and binding, to conceal her shredding, ripped, black dress. As she tied her apron strings she said, “She’s in first grade, but my son is in fourth grade already and he gets all A's.”
“What a pretty dress you're wearing,” the investigator said to me.
All the girls wore dresses down to their knees, and mine was way too short. But I loved the blue bear embroidered on the front.
“You’re such a big girl.”
I nodded. That’s what people always said. I wished I was older and could go to the library by myself, stay there as long as I wanted so I could read all the books.
The investigator sniffed. “I smell something good cooking.” She walked to the stove and lifted the lid on the steaming pot. “Looks like chicken. Are you having company for dinner?”
It was Friday and Mama always cooked chicken soup for Shabbos. “No. We will eat this chicken and the soup today, Saturday and Sunday.” Mama always gave my brother and me a bowl of hot soup with noodles followed by a piece of over-boiled tasteless chicken for four meals. She then fried herself the chicken livers with an onion, chewed on the chicken wings and when my brother and I were finished, ate our scraps, cracking and sucking the marrow out of every last bone. All the other nights of the week Mama boiled potatoes and then mashed them into a lumpy mess that I hated, but she let me eat carrots, celery and bread and butter.
The investigator looked around the kitchen. She opened a cupboard. “I see you have sugar cubes. They cost a lot.” Mama sometimes held a cube of sugar between her front teeth when she sipped tea.
No one had ever come in and looked in the cupboards before this. Visitors usually sat and drank tea with Mama. Why was the investigator looking into the chicken soup, the cupboards and then the refrigerator?
The investigator walked over to the kitchen table and asked, “Did you buy this newspaper?”
“I picked it up on the street.” Actually she had found it in the open wiry garbage can next to the stoplight on the way home from first grade. Mama read the paper for hours every day, while I read the picture books we got from the library.
Mama folded up the New York Times spread out on the kitchen table and invited the lady to sit down. The investigator set her shiny black purse on the table. Unzipping a big leather envelope, she took out a lot of papers and set them down on the beige and orange metal table top.
“I need to ask you questions,” the lady said.
Mama sent me to the living room. Lying down on the couch, I heard Mama say, “Two children.... so little money.” The lady said something in a low voice. Mama continued, “I’ll have to put them in a Home and go ...”
Suddenly I was cold and started shaking. Hearing “Home” scared me. Mama always threatened that she’d send me to a home when I didn’t obey her. I could hide in the closet or under the couch. Mama was crying. I almost cried too. She always cried when someone came to visit but never in front of me in the house. I was sure she was saying I’m a bad girl and the investigator should take me away to a Home.
Voices, like buzzing bees, droned on in the kitchen. Mama stopped crying and I heard her say, “My children grow so fast. Their shoes don’t fit.” As they went on talking I imagined that the pretty lady would take me home with her, become my mother and buy me pretty dresses that came down to my knees. She would be like the mother in Lassie Come Home, the only movie I’d ever seen. We would live in a small house with a white picket fence surrounded by grass and trees, like in my first-grade reader, Dick and Jane.
Mama and the lady came in.
“You have such a nice living room,” the lady said and smiled at me. I liked her smile and smiled back.
“It's all from before,” Mama said. Everything in our house had been bought years ago before I was born. We got all our clothes from charities, except for socks when they didn’t fit anymore or the holes were too big to darn anymore.
The investigator stared at the tall black bookcase and said, “So many books.”
“This is what is left.”
“Can’t you sell them?”
“I’d get pennies for each one.”
“That’s a beautiful set of Dickens.”
“My children will read them.”
The investigator smiled as she said goodbye to me. I wanted to go live with her.
The lady said to Mama, “I will try to help you.” Then they said goodbye.
Mama stirred the chicken soup.
“She's a pretty lady,” I said. Mama stared into the pot. What was she looking at? I continued, “I liked her.”
“She's an investigator.”
“She was nice.”
“What right does she have to look at what I'm cooking?”
“Was that bad?”
“She'll report me for cooking chicken soup. They'll give me even less money.”
“Who gives money?”
“The government gives money for poor children who don't have fathers.”
“Does the lady help us?”
“Yes.” Mama replied. “She can get you the money to buy clothes and shoes.”
I wondered again whether the lady was like a fairy godmother who could get me beautiful clothes and shoes like the other children wore.
“Her red hat was pretty. I wish I had a hat like that.” I had a warm red hat that Mama had knit for me with the wool from an old sweater she ripped up. The knitted hat was pretty, but nothing like the investigator’s red one with a feather.
“Someday you will be rich like her, and you’ll have lots of hats.”
“How do you get rich?”
“You go to school and learn. Then you can work in an office and make a lot of money.” I knew the offices at my school and at the Department of Welfare. Those ladies wore nice clothes, not like Mama’s ripped dresses. But I didn’t want to dress like them.
“I want a red hat just like the investigator’s,” I insisted.
“What kind of girl wears a red hat?” Mama said. “Never wear a hat like that!”
About the Author: Beulah Amsterdam grew up in the Bronx on welfare. She worked as a waitress, clerk, telephone operator, dental assistant, and psychiatric technician on her way to becoming a clinical psychologist. She has published poetry in her chapbooks, Black Frogs That Fly and Visit as well as in The Chiron, Tule, and Americas Reviews. She lives in Davis, California, where she is working on her memoir, Brucha's Daughter, from which "The Lady in the Red Hat" is excerpted.