Of course, Shakespeare was writing of Cleopatra, and Cleopatra was who, in the 1940’s in my youthful fantasies, I wanted to grow up to be. Alas, I was overweight, Orthodox Jewish, myopic, a teacher with thick eyeglasses, so I never did quite meet the bard’s criteria, but I would have given it my best shot.
Destiny intervened. I was living in a one-room-share-the-bath-walk-up in Greenwich Village and teaching school in a chaotic Harlem junior high school when an old friend unexpectedly dropped in – with her own, male old friend, Mort. He was a pleasant guy, a pulp magazine editor and science fiction writer, still an undergraduate – going to college at night and supporting a widowed mother and a sister.
He presumed to know something about Kafka, and I, who had a fresh new MFA from the Iowa Writers Workshop and ALREADY KNEW EVERYTHING ABOUT KAFKA, listened and I found Mort interesting but presumptuous. He just laughed merrily at my pretensions. That was when we had our first fierce argument about why Kafka had chosen the roach as his symbol.
Mort just laughed, BUT he memorized my phone number and called me next day! That was serious stuff. He could have looked the number up in the phone book – but actually memorizing it was so much more gallant. I don’t know about Cleopatra, who after all had no phone, but I accepted all gallantry from whomever it came.
Anyway, to cut a long courtship short, we married; anthropology was his passion (COMING OF AGE IN SAMOA by Margaret Mead had bewitched him). Mort graduated from Brooklyn College then hastened through the doctoral program in anthropology at Columbia University doing brilliantly. I supported us, teaching, and I published my first novel about a lousy Harlem Junior High School, COME BACK ON MONDAY, published by Abelard Schuman in 1960.
Then it was time to do field work. Of course! Just like that, it became imperative that we immediately go and live for a year in the sugar cane swamps in Trinidad. There was vital information to be gathered there by Mort. It was suddenly urgent, indeed crucial, that he discover whether or not the descendants of the 19th Century cane-cutters – all of whom had been indentured laborers brought from INDIA – were still Indian or had they merged into the Trinidad population? Were they westernized?
My closest previous adventures with “nature” had been summers in a rooming house in the Catskill Mountains. Any creature that flew or crept surreptitiously still frightened me. But I’d signed on with Mort and visible cowardice was unseemly in an anthropologist’s wife. Fortunately, myopia made me brave; I saw little.
So off we went to live in a swamp village called Felicity. Our house, built high on concrete pilings cost $10.50 per month, the highest rent in the village. It had no running water or toilet or screens.
Our first child, Perri Elizabeth Klass (Tulsi Devi is her Hindi name) was born while we lived there and the whole village celebrated. “We knew when you came you would make baby!” our neighbors told us jubilantly. “Everyone who lives in that house makes babies! The last schoolmaster made four there!”
It was the most exciting year of our lives.
That Cleopatra! She had nothing on me.
I love, love, love reading this, Sheila! I knew the story about Perri being born in Trinidad, but I had never heard the story of how you met Mort. When I was in college and Perri talked about you both I always thought you were the most romantic, adventurous, accomplished couple I had ever heard of — and I held out hope that romance could come to the world’s other overweight Jewish girls as well. Thanks for lighting the way!