Last Updated on May 5, 2015, by eNotes Editorial. Word Count: 682
From the very beginning of the story, Rosa Lublin is described as a madwoman; indeed, the world she inhabits seems composed of as much illusion as reality. After destroying her junk shop in Brooklyn, she has exiled herself to Miami, which she envisions as a sort of Hell of the...
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From the very beginning of the story, Rosa Lublin is described as a madwoman; indeed, the world she inhabits seems composed of as much illusion as reality. After destroying her junk shop in Brooklyn, she has exiled herself to Miami, which she envisions as a sort of Hell of the elderly. She lives in a sordid hotel room with a disconnected phone and keeps as much to herself as possible. Her main form of communication is letter writing; yet her long-dead daughter Magda, to whom she pens lengthy and intimate thoughts in “excellent literary Polish,” seems to have more substance for Rosa than the long-suffering niece Stella, who actually supports Rosa and to whom Rosa writes in “crude” English.
When Simon Persky bursts on Rosa’s solitude in a coin-operated laundry one morning and attempts to lure her back to the world of the living, she repels his advance, even rejecting their common origins in Warsaw. Rosa insists, “My Warsaw isn’t your Warsaw.” She pictures his Warsaw as one of alleys strung with cheap clothing and “signs in jargoned Yiddish,” while hers was Polish, a place of “cultivation, old civilization, beauty, history.” Her parents mocked Yiddish, and the young Rosa was preparing to become another Marie Curie. Persky treats her to a meal in the Kollins Kosher Kameo, which she grudgingly endures, preferring her lonely exclusivity.
When she returns to her hotel, the mail has arrived: Stella’s letter announcing that she has finally sent the shawl Rosa requested, and a package that Rosa imagines contains the shawl of her dead infant Magda. Before she can open it, however, she must purify her room and herself; justifying her motives in a long letter to a perfect and adult Magda, she emphasizes the purity of Magda’s heritage. Then Rosa ventures out into the dusk in search of a pair of lost underpants that she imagines Persky has “stolen” from her, causing her to feel shamed and degraded. During the search she becomes entrapped on a private hotel beach, behind a barbed-wire fence; she finally gets free but registers her complaint with the hotel’s manager, who as a Jew, she reminds him, ought to know better: “In America it’s no place for barbed wire on top of fences.”
“Cleansed” by the outburst, she returns to her hotel to find Persky waiting in the lobby, and they have tea in her room. Feeling already exposed to Persky, the imagined possessor of her underwear, she opens in front of him, first her thoughts and then the package. To her disappointment it contains, instead of the shawl, only a scientific book. In a fury, Rosa smashes up the tea party, and Persky dashes out.
The next day she has her telephone reconnected, and the real shawl arrives in the mail, though it is now colorless, like an old bandage, and does not immediately evoke Magda’s presence for her, as it usually does. Not until Rosa phones Stella “long distance” does Magda come magically to life. Rosa composes another letter to her in which she relates the story of her family’s degradation in wartime Warsaw, when Jews were imprisoned in the Ghetto and her family was forced to live among the poor and ignorant in crowded, unbelievably squalid conditions. Through the center of the Ghetto ran the city tram because it could not be economically rerouted around the Ghetto. While people in the Ghetto were prevented from getting on the tram, common Polish working-class citizens, passing from one side of Warsaw to the other, rode through each day, “straight into the place of our misery,” to witness her family’s shame. One day Rosa noticed an ordinary woman riding the tram with a head of lettuce showing out of the top of her shopping sack. Now, she concludes in the letter to Magda, she has herself become like that ordinary woman with the lettuce in the tram. At that point Magda disappears, because the telephone rings to announce Perksy’s arrival in the lobby downstairs, and Rosa invites him to come up.