Jul 25, 2003
My husband and I went to a book sale at the Chrysler Museum of Art, in Norfolk, Virginia, a couple of weeks ago. 40,000 books were donated to the museum for the fund raiser. Peter and I were drooling, hoping to find old copies of N.C. Wyeth illustrated classics, maybe some Thornton W. Burgess, or other treasures to add to our children's library.
We ended up buying 102 old books which cost us a whopping $42. We didn't find everything we were looking for, but we still got some great stuff. We got several anthologies packed with stories and essays from the 19th and early 20th centuries. One story I read from these impacted me very much. It was written by someone named S. Libin, a Russian born writer, who specialized mainly in stories about Jewish immigrants living in urban America. This story was reprinted in a 1935 collection of stories and essays entitled, "Today's Literature, An Omnibus".
The story deals with Shmuel, the cap maker, and his wife, Sarah, who once went for a picnic that went wrong. They live in a crowded tenement where they "sit day and night, sweating in the dark", with their six children. One day, Shmuel comes home and proposes to his wife that they go on a picnic. They've been in America for a long time now, and his wife only knows her way to the market and back. They've never seen anything or been anywhere. It's time to take a little time and enjoy life like normal people.
So they struggle to decide if they can afford the 80 cents for carfare and food. (The picnic will be a bottle of milk, a damaged pineapple, a few bananas and some rolls.) They spend an entire Sunday morning scrubbing the children, sewing a button on where it's needed, and grooming themselves to get ready to go out. Sarah wears her old, satin wedding dress. They board the streetcar and are on their way.
After traveling a while, the baby, who had been dozing, wakes up feeling sick and starts to cry. The mother tries to hush him and then all the children start to cry. The conductor gives the mother a dirty look, and the father drops the bag of refreshments, breaking the bottle of milk. They get off the streetcar at a park, exhausted and disheartened. Sarah says to Shmuel, "So nothing would content him but a picnic? Much good may it do him! You're a workman, and workmen have no call to go gadding about!"
But the mother sits down and nurses the baby, the children play in the grass, and they hear the music of a street musician nearby. They begin to feel better. The couple sit, lost in thought. The wife puts her hand on her husband's knee, and she nearly cries thinking about their hard, bitter life. It seems like they are on the verge of a breakthrough in communication, a moment of beautiful closeness.
Suddenly, it begins to rain. They dash to a shelter and all the children start to cry again, this time with hunger. Shmuel opens the bag of food to find everything soaked and smashed. Sarah's heart fills with venom, and she whispers to him, "The same to you, my good man."
Shmuel has 5 cents left and goes to a refreshment stand to buy something for his children to eat. It costs 20 cents for a glass of milk and a roll. He is completely crestfallen and comes back empty handed. His wife curses him saying, "I'll pay you out for...the whole of my miserable existence."
They return home, separated in heart. Sarah refuses him dinner and he goes to bed hungry, repeating all night in his sleep, "A picnic, oi, a picnic."
It said in the "Omnibus" that this story was supposed to be extracting humor from a distressing event. I cried when I finished reading it. I thought this story was completely heartbreaking. It was the only time in this couple's entire lives that they ever tried to have a little fun. It backfired, and they never tried again.
The story plainly illustrates the hardship experienced by working class people, at a time when freedom was not easily enjoyed. They had little discretionary time or money. Communication between married couples wasn't stressed as much as it is today. Even though married couples tended to stay together more, people held grudges against each other and endured their loneliness separately. Sarah's harshness is hard to forgive, especially when it follows the tender feelings she had for Shmuel briefly in the park. You think that because they've stuck it out together for so long that they will finally get to enjoy the beautiful intimacy that can develop from suffering together. The saddest part of the story is that Sarah cancels their chance for the ecstasy of unity, by having a hard heart toward her husband. His only crime was wanting to enjoy life a little. When he gives up too, he succumbs to the historical tendency that infers that it's not the place of working people to have fun.
Happily, human relationships have improved since this era, and society is less class-oriented. It is now universally accepted that all levels of society have the right to pursue happiness. It is pitiful to consider all of the people who have lived and died in utter drudgery, rarely knowing a fulfilling moment.
Reading about different historical time periods makes us aware of the generations who became the foundation of the world we enjoy now. America was settled by immigrants seeking a better future for themselves and their children. Very few of them actually tasted those benefits. Things change slowly. The sacrifice of those who came before us is dignified when we don't take our blessings for granted. So next time you go on a picnic, have a good time.
Written in 1997
Kimmy Sophia Brown has loved humor and music and freedom for as long as she can remember.She is especially passionate about the environment and caring for animals.
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