The Bessies of my Life

by Barbara Joan Grubman

The obituary in the New York Times read, "KAPLAN, BESSIE. Born August 2, 1880, died July 2, 1975. Bessie was loved by her large and attentive family, including her favorite niece, Lorraine Manes of Pennsylvania. Bessie was known in her family as a maven of cooking. It was said that there never was a meal she couldn't prepare, and often as her family sat down to eat she would say, "Tell me if there is any restaurant where you could get such a spread?" Her desserts were legend, fattening and full of sugar, and they were four star winners. Beautiful to look at, each slice, puff and brownie was legendary She even set out three courses for breakfast and, almost unheard of, a dessert to go with it."

No fast food for our Bessie and she shopped 'fresh' every morning.

No one ever saw her eat a complete meal in one sitting. She was always rushing around, making sure that everyone was happy and had everything they could possible want. When Bessie did sit down, it was at an end chair, with her feet to one side, the better to jump up and hurry to the kitchen whenever anyone uttered a word of need.

She was the quintessential sacrificer and she elevated it to an art. I am proud to say that there is a lot of my Aunt Bessie in me. I learned well at her table and immediately upon getting my own family, followed in her footsteps. Bessie's training took a hold of my actions and never let go. That is why, as I begin my story, it leap right into 1962 and I am on my way to Atlantic City, New Jersey to The Traymore Hotel as a contestant in the yearly Mrs. Sacrifice contest. I am no Miss America, I realize that, yet I am trim enough, with good bone structure and plenty of stories to tell. Plus, there is practically no gray showing, as I am quick to arrange my hair style in a way so as not to have the color be so obvious. Heidi, my terrific hair-dresser, taught me how to do it.
So, with my story and my decent appearance and new Bloomingdale wardrobe, I found myself up there on the stage along with the other contestants and the infamous contest emcee, Mr. Bob Barker.

At first I was sure I was going to faint, then I started to hyperventilate and my mouth went dry. The bright and colorful lights surrounding the stage started to look like they had an aura about them. My pilates instructor would be proud of me, to see how quickly I took hold of my senses and started the calming breathing she always talks about. Next a powerful wave of nausea swept over me and I thought I might lose it there up on the beautiful stage. Oh, please, don't let me do that, not here, not now, right when I am in the last round of the semi-finals of the Mrs. Sacrifice contest. I couldn't wrap my mind around the fact that this was happening to me.
Bulbs were flashing in the faces of the last two remaining contestants. Any minute, Bob Baker, with his annoying grin would announce the first runner up, and then everyone in the packed auditorium would know who the lucky winner was, who would get the crown for being this year's number one sacrificial lamb.
Oh, please I silently prayed, let it be me.

Mrs. Sheldon Klayton and I, Mrs. Jack Manes, had made it to the end. What was really strange was that of all the 50 contestants, we were randomly paired as roommates. That was only two days before the finals, and so much had been packed into those 48 hours: there were speeches, dinners, interviews and even free time to walk or ride a small two- person carriage that was pushed leisurely up and down the famous Atlantic City boardwalk.

I want to be honest with you. I did not like that Klayton woman at all. As soon as we met, she said, all sugar-sweet talking in her southern accent, "Ah am Mrs. Sheldon Klayton, which would be Klayton with a K." Why, I thought, couldn't she be like the other Claytons I knew who spelled it with a C? Then, she added," my first name is Sherri and that is with an "i".

I managed, "I am Mrs. Lorraine Manes" and really had to hold my tongue not to add, "That is Lorraine, the way you always spell it."

Earlier that Friday morning, when we met at the airport, we were greeted by a sweet-faced young man. Kind and cordial, he escorted us to thes bus that would take us to The Traymore, our hotel on the boardwalk. I always liked to sit in the first row of seats on a bus, so as to see whatever sites are coming my way, especially since I had never been to this part of Jersey. All I really knew about it was that the properties in the game of Monopoly were named for the local streets, or was it the other way around, with the streets named after the Monopoly board?

I suppose you could call me a one-town girl, born and lived in Allentown, Pennsylvania all of my life. In case you didn't know, Allentown is the home of the Crayola factory and I take my grandchildren there, often, on Sunday. We love it. The aroma of crayons never ceases to send me back to my childhood days when my grandfather, Sam, a Madison Ave. tailor, would take me to the drug store around the corner from his shop and buy me a new box of 64 colors.

As long as I am talking about grand-children, I might as well tell you that the story that got me into the Mrs. Sacrifice contest in the first place was one that involved my wonderful children and my brilliant grandchildren. Oh, but I must go back to the boarding of the bus when we arrived in Atlantic City.

And then I will get to the children and grandchildren tale, I promise.

As already mentioned, I like to sit in the front of the bus. In fact, not doing so could cause all sorts of reactions from me. Once when I was about five, my mother and I got on a bus and all the front seats were taken. People with packages, older people, people who had trouble walking, those with babies in arms, had taken them. My mother said, "Now, look, Lorraine, there isn't one seat in the front, so we will have to sit closer to the back," as she plopped me down in a rear seat. Well, I showed her. I threw up all over my new red winter coat, the one with the fake leopard collar. From then on, we always managed to sit up front, or wait for the next bus to come along.

Now, as we boarded the nice gentleman's bus, and I had rushed to be first in line for 'my' seat, I smiled to myself as I sat down, arranged my items and proceeded to look out the clear' front window that was right in my line of sight. I relaxed.

While the bus was being loaded and others were getting on, a tall blonde with obviously bleached hai, stood outside, smoking a cigarette as leisurely as you please. Soon, the only seats empty were in the far back. That floozy was still standing there, smoking, just as cool as you please, as if she had all the time in the world.

She finally got her feet, in those high-heeled, sling-back shoes, up the front steps, and don't you know it, she stops right next to me. "Honey", she says, "How'd you like to take that seat in the back?" Before you could say"And the winner is..." I, Lorraine with two r's," found myself getting up, gathering my carefully placed things, and heading to the back row.. Marlboro woman muttered "Thank you" to me, as I hobbled up the aisle. I almost didn't care. All the other women saw what I had done, my great sacrifice, and I began to feel all warm and giving by the time I reached my seat.

So, now, I will tell you about my precious family and how they played a small part in getting me to Atlantic City. About 10 years before, I entered a contest and won a seat at the Oscars, an all-expense paid trip to Hollywood, a room at the Beverly Hills Hotel, a borrowed gown of my liking from a fancy Rodeo Drive store, jewels from Harry Winston and a black town car with a driver at my beck and call. I ordered a chiffon red number with a long, flowing skirt and a tightly gathered bodice from the pictures they had sent me. My husband thought the top was a bit too revealing, but I loved the look of that dress and how many times would I, a little housewife from Allentown, have this opportunity. For weeks I dreamed of the day I would walk, with all those celebrities, into the Oscars, on the arm of a charming young escort.

Then something happened just a week before the big trip. My daughter-in-law, who I happen to get along with very well, called and asked if I could baby-sit for my grandchildren the very night before I was to get all ready for my trip. Impossible, How could I say "Yes" to her request? And then I asked her where she and my son were going, and she said, "A PTA meeting at your grandchildren's school."

"After all" she added, "They are going to vote on the logo and lettering for next year's school sweatshirts." Well, I suppose you can guess what I did. I cancelled the Oscar trip, sent back the catalogues from Harry Winston Jewelers and thanked them for considering me.

On the night of the P.T.A. meeting, I arrived early for my baby sitting job.

I never had a moment's regret. Well, maybe just for a brief time. Isn't that what Grandmothers are for, sacrificing for their families, even making them beholden to them? Besides, without this story I would not have ever gotten to Atlantic City in the first place. I would not be standing here tonight, waiting to see if the crown would be put on my head. In my entry letter, I wrote all about the PTA incident and my grand- giving- up of my desire for my family's need. All the other stories I heard paled in comparison to mine.

So now, here I was, one of the last two contestants and Bob was announcing the first runner up, Mrs. Sherri Klayton, with a K, only, Bob did not add "with a K." Suddenly, there I was, about to receive the jeweled crown, the red and white satin sash and the two dozen red roses that went with the title, Mrs. Sacrifice, 1962!

The rest of the evening went by in a blur. All the 'losers' rushed over to air kiss and congratulate me, telling me how happy they were for me, except Sherri Klayton. She hung back with a sad, sour look on her face, but she never approached me..

On the plane back home, I couldn't get the image of that woman out of my mind. Then, just about an hour outside of the airport near Allentown, I knew what I had to do. The very next day, I called the contest people and made up some logical sounding reason why I could not fulfill my term and could I relinquish it to Mrs. Sherri and a K. The image of her twisted face and the tears running down her cheeks, was too much for me to bear. What else could a woman, who had just been crowned "The Queen of Sacrifice”do, but to sacrifice everythingl to someone else?

Don't you just love me?