Tag Archives: teenage years

How Mrs Bentley’s History Formed Me

by Megan Vered (San Rafael, CA)

The shop, narrow as a stick of Doublemint gum, was owned by Anna Bentley and her husband Oscar, originally from Bratislava, Slovakia. Their last name had once been Buchinger, but in 1939, after the Nazi invasion, they fled to England where they changed their name and opened a corset shop. Mrs. Bentley had been a corsetière in Vienna before marrying Oscar, helping women curve in all the right places. Being up close and personal with women was her sweet spot. In 1951, she brought her old-world skills across the ocean when she and her husband emigrated to Berkeley. They opened their store just as I was coming of age, ripe fruit for the picking. Mrs. Bentley had a home operation where she and her team of workers, which included her daughter and friends, dyed fabrics and garments in every shade of the rainbow. Tie-dye was all the rage. Until then, I’d been stuck with the ho-hum underwear selection at JC Penny’s; Bentley’s took the experience of shopping for lingerie to a glitzy new level. 

“You must fall into it, dahlink,” Mrs. Bentley commanded in a thick central European accent. She had swished open the dressing room curtain without asking permission, and now stood directly behind me, her teapot frame swaddled in too-tight clothing. There she was in the mirror, tiny teeth square as Scrabble tiles and the faint hint of a mustache on her upper lip. Her hands cupped my budding breasts. “Lean over and fall into it.” She urged me forward, peppermint breath hot on my neck. 

Once I righted myself, Mrs. Bentley’s sure palms smoothed the bottom of the barely discernible cups. She adjusted the straps with an efficient tug. “There. Much better.” She stood back and admired her handiwork, lips forming a confident knot. I couldn’t imagine that my breasts were anywhere near as glorious as those of the sophisticated, shapely girls who shopped there. I did my best, in my lavender lace, to adopt a 28 AA sense of cool. My body was still under construction, but in the dimly lit dressing room, I could almost imagine a day when I would have meaningful curves. 

So caught up in the insecurity of my own reflection, I failed to see the tragedy in Mrs. Bentley’s eyes as she shaped and shifted my budding bosom. Eighty-five percent of the Slovakian Jews were murdered by the Germans, which included Anna and Oscar Bentley’s parents and close relatives, although I understand that a handful of them made it to Palestine. I never thought to probe into Mrs. Bentley’s past or that of any other older Jew in my community. If my mother was aware of Anna Bentley’s back story, she never said a word. Even though we were expected to watch devastating black and white films in Sunday school, there was a collective hush when it came to acknowledging those who had brushed shoulders with the Holocaust. It would be years before I would realize that people I saw every day at temple, the grocery store, the pharmacy, had fled Europe, lost family, or had a number tattooed on their arm. 

Perhaps by surrounding themselves with color the Bentley’s washed away the heartbreak of history. Perhaps by tending to young girls like me on the brink of bloom they were able to forget, if only for one moment. Perhaps it brought a sense of repair to usher me and my friends into womanhood from the inside out, helping us become safe, secure, well-supported. Mrs. Bentley, whose dark wool skirts, modest blouses, and practical pumps read more school marm than sex goddess, brought a sense of daring identity into our young lives at a time when our knees wobbled with self-doubt. 

Mrs. Bentley intimidated me with her weighty touch and stern eye, but at the same time she offered me a delicious opportunity to explore the boundaries of my femininity, an opportunity to break free from my mother’s secret, suffocating life. The endless hooks of her long-line bra, the wiggling to squeeze into the girdle, the painstaking unfurling of sheer stockings that clipped into garters. My teenage lingerie drawer was stacked with excitement, unlike my mother’s monochromatic drawer.

I lost track of Mrs. Bentley once I graduated from high school and moved away, but to this day, when my high school girlfriends and I get together someone invariably shimmies her bosom and cries, “You must fall into it dahlink!” We all remember the dozens of bras that dangled from Mrs. Bentley’s right wrist like colorful bangles as she bustled around the tiny store. She was always ready to size you up and had all the tools for a quick alteration. A worn, yellow measuring tape hung from her neck and a red pin cushion hugged her left wrist. Pins poked out from between her teeth like miniature pick-up sticks. We all remember the terror of being topless in her dressing room and the feel of her strict palms against our budding chests. And yet, in today’s faceless world of on-line and chain store shopping, there is no comparison to the personal touch we received as girls. 

Anna Bentley died in 2009 at the age of 96, having outlived her husband by thirty-five years. I was just one of many giddy girls who visited her shop, one of many self-obsessed teenagers with no regard for her past. It is only now as I explore the contours of her life that I see a woman who saved herself and us by turning her sorrow into bursts of vibrant color. 

Megan Vered is an essayist and literary hostess. Her essays and interviews have been published in Kveller, The Rumpus, the Maine Review, the Los Angeles Review of Books, and the Writer’s Chronicle, among others. Her essay Requiem for a Lost Organ was long listed for the Disquiet 2022 Literary Prize and she was a finalist for the Bellingham Review’s 2021 Annie Dillard Award for Creative Nonfiction. She holds an MFA from Vermont College of Fine Arts. Megan lives in Marin County, where she leads local and international writing workshops and serves on the board of the UC Berkeley Library and Heyday Books. Her memoir, A Dance to Remember, Confessions of a Medical Maid of Honor, is currently under review for publication.  

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Growing Up Jewish

An Interview with David B. Black (Yardley, PA)

(interviewed by Rick Black)

Port Chester, NY was a small town, especially the Jewish community.

We went to shul on Lake Street, then on Willett Avenue, and in the Jewish Center. In fact, my father was a founding member of the shul on Willett Avenue – Congregation Knesseth Israel at 249 Willett Avenue. A lot of the Orthodox Jews lived between Travis Avenue and Townsend Street but that was a different group, a religious group, and we had nothing to do with them.

Of course, I went to Hebrew school. The rabbi’s name was Winkler. He was the head and he had a son our age who was part of our gang. At Hebrew school, we were not the greatest kids but I remember the one pleasure that we had was when we left Hebrew school, we would go to the Lifesavers building on Main Street, which was a block away, and there they had three big lifesavers in front of the building – peppermint, wintergreen and I don’t know what the other one was, it might have been orange. We used to play king of the hill and we would run up on the hill and try to hold it, and the other kids would grab our coats and rip our buttons off, and my mother would always wonder how I lost all my buttons – but I never told her.

The other thing at the Lifesavers building was on Saturday morning when the football season was in vogue, they would have a fella from our high school team, Baker – who was the star fullback – giving out samples of lifesavers to all of the automobiles that were passing by. Most of them were on their way to the Yale game and, as they would pass the Lifesavers building, he would drop the lifesavers in their car, and we used to chase after the extra samples that fell in the street.

I was bar mitzvahed in a very small shul – the one on Lake Street. We didn’t make much of it. It was just a small bar mitzvah for our family. I davaned Saturday morning for the service, Shacharis and Musaf, and when they took the Torah out of the ark, I had to sing the “Shema” and my voice broke, and a kid from Hebrew school said, “You alright?”

My father was so proud that I’d be able to davan now. My folks gave me a party for all my friends, all the boys, at my house on Washington Street. We had them over and had a lot of fun. I got a lot of fountain pens. I must have gotten six fountain pens and three didn’t work. I remember the best one that I had was Waterman’s, and that was my favorite.

And, of course, I used to caddie and my mother bought me a set of golf clubs when I was bar mitzvah. I used to make a dollar a round plus a twenty five cent tip, and that allowed you to play on Monday at the course. I played golf at the public courses.

* * *

Before the Jewish Center was built, we would play basketball in barns around town. It was hot but we didn’t care. Even though I was thin, I wouldn’t let that stop me from playing a lot of ball. I went to Hebrew school after my regular classes and then I would spend a lot of time at the Jewish Center, playing basketball and working out.

While at the Center, I played a lot of billiards, I learned how to play pool, I played a lot of ping pong and, later on in life, I was doubles champion for Westchester County in ping pong with Irving Walt as my partner. I was taught boxing and hitting the punching bag. I was pretty good at the punching bag. I had a lot of friends and we played a lot and spent a lot of time at the Jewish Center.

We used to have a good time in the gym. In fact, the fella who had the candy machine in the hall never collected any money because all the guys used to bang the machine against the wall and the candy used to come out. We didn’t feel that was stealing. We felt that he didn’t know his business! We used to have a lot of fun. Many days I would bask in the sun on the roof.

We had a basketball team that was not so hot – but it was pretty good. I was a forward. Our coach used to get the games for us in Stamford and Greenwich and White Plains and New Rochelle and Mamaroneck and Mount Vernon. One day we traveled to Staten Island – we got beat so bad. We used to play in Yonkers – they had a very good team. And some of our boys were on the town team that played for the county championship in White Plains. We lost in the last ten seconds – one of our guards threw the ball to one of the other Yonkers players in error and he made a basket and we lost by one point. We had some good times.

While in junior high school, four friends and myself started a club called the Maccabeans, and we were a very active club. We would run beautiful dances. We would decorate the gym with balloons and confetti and hire a band and the whole town would come and pay tribute to the dance that we would put on. We would take the money that we raised and we would donate it to the Jewish Center for some cause – it might be a new standing radio, it might go for someone to go to camp who couldn’t afford it – but it was a good deed for everyone.

We had about 35 or 40 members after we got started and it was the most popular club in the Jewish Center. We were guided by a young lady who was Ethel Goldman and she saw to it that we ran the club in a constitutional way. I was the president of the club for maybe five sessions. They wouldn’t hear of having another president. They liked the way I conducted the meetings.

The dues were ten cents a week for everybody. If they were behind one month, we looked into the fact to find out whether they had the money or didn’t have the money. And if they didn’t have the money, we used to let them stay in anyway. One of my friends, Joel, though, had a friend who was gentile, and said he would like to put him up for membership in the club. It was a question of letting him in or not, and we took a vote, and voted against it. You had to be of the Jewish faith and connected to the Center to get in – that’s what we figured.

One time our club decided to put on a Broadway musical at the Jewish Center and they hired a director to put on “Loose Change” – that was the name of the musical – and I was one of the chorus. I lost 10 pounds by dancing in this show. It was a very good show; it sold out for three nights. But when we came to the dress rehearsal and the production manager was up front and the curtain went up and he raised his arms to start like a conductor, everybody froze. We didn’t get off the first kick.

So, he said, “I don’t understand you. It’s a good thing that we’re having this rehearsal because if this happened tomorrow night, we would be in dire trouble.”

So they put the curtain back and they started again – and this time it was okay. We were very successful with the play; it was a humdinger.

* * *

My Dad knew we had the club and he used to sell a lot of pants in his store, and when he had to have the pants fixed, he would give the pants to be repaired to a special tailor, and one of the tailors was a Russian. He had his wife and children come over to this country when I was about twelve. And my father said, “You know, this young man has no friends here. Why don’t you introduce him to your friends and get him started?”

So, this fella’s name was Max Bregoff and I met him. He was a tough Russian. I introduced him to a lot of my friends who were members of the club and we made him a member of the club, too. We called him the mad Russian. He used to get very angry. He’d spit at them. He was a tough hombre but he found the American way and he was able to live a good life and enjoy himself. He spent a lot of time at the Jewish Center. Yes, he did find the American way and he became a friend.

After I graduated high school, I still played basketball for the Jewish Center. And then we had a very good ball team that used to play before crowds of two, three, four thousand people. We played other teams within the town – the Don Boscoes, the Holy Name Society, the Catholic organizations, the Y.M.C.A. It used to go on for weeks.

One time we took our team to play against Don Bosco, the Italians, and heard ’em say, “Let’s get the Jews.” But I never really had any trouble with anti-Semitism in Port Chester. We played a lot of teams and used to raise a lot of money for the Jewish Center.

David B. Black, 94, is my father. He was the men’s wear merchandise manager for Alexander’s Department Stores for over thirty years until his retirement in 1978. Over the past two years my brother interviewed Dad weekly to gather material for a family memoir, from which this is an excerpt.

Rick Black, my brother, is a prize-winning poet and former journalist who creates hand-crafted books at Turtle Light Press in Highland Park, NJ. You can see his work at http://www.turtlelightpress.com/abouttlp.shtml

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