Sometimes I want to speak to her directly, ignore the worlds, class gulf, religious divides between us, and just talk, woman to woman
Downstairs, done, now time for ironing. Where are those shirts?
Brenda, the woman of the house, is on the phone, wearing a path in the carpet as she paces.
“Ironing now, right? The shirts aren’t in the basket.”
She looks at me absently, blinks, and says, “Oh. Shirts. They’re in the dryer.”
I hold up a thumb. “And by this afternoon the man’s all sorted.”
Brenda tries to return my smile, but her lips fall in on themselves.
“Oysh, I wish.”
I open the dryer and warm my hands in hot collars and cuffs. She worries too much about him. And it’s worse now, these past few weeks, something with Havi. I feel it soon as I come in, brooding heaviness blanketing the house. A paper-thin coating of normalcy, but underneath that, I sense her disquiet, her despair. I breathe, try to exhale it; ironing time.
The iron heats up, and steam rises over the little room. My own warm ironing kingdom. I open the wall-mounted ironing board, forming a castle, and bring the iron over a shirt. Clouds rise, I inhale steam, ahh, it’s not half bad. And it’s all mine; this old contraption hangs limp and lifeless all week, until we make magic on Mondays.
Magic, ha. Your imagination’s stronger than anything, Gramma would say. And Mama, she’d flap her hands like a falcon and say, Man who has no imagination has no wings.
Ah, she’s a hodgepodge of sayings, my mama is. Was. No, is.
There were so many sayings, and sometimes they’d contradict each other. But if I were to quote one to challenge another, she’d somehow string them together like a chunky necklace, and I don’t remember understanding how it made sense so much as I remember her words, hypnotic words, and the passion she had to make everything come together.
What was that other one? You can’t live by imagination alone, you gotta live by the sweat of your hands.
I look at my own hands, well-worn. I’m doing good on both sayings, Mama.
My mama worked her own hand until she was seventy, more. She’d clean, press, mend, do whatever it took. When I was a child, she’d sometimes take me along to a Jewish family in Brooklyn. Now her hands are still. She only ever lives in her imagination, her mind running up and down the alleys like a falcon that can’t find rest. She’s in a state-sponsored nursing home, eligible for the highest level of care, but she wouldn’t like me to think that. No, she’d say, like a bird in endless happy flight.
I plunge a hand into the basket and come up empty. On the counter is a tower of pressed shirts I barely realized I was building. When I’m thinking about Mama, when I ache with how I can’t bear to see her like that, what is time?
But it’s midday already. Creak of stairs, here’s Brenda.
She sets down a mug with a sprig of rosemary. “Sit, sit Giana, here’s a hot drink.”
“You know I like to drink it standing. My mama used to say things taste better when you’re busy.”
She tries to smile but I see the tug of guilt in the corners of her mouth.
Sometimes I want to speak to her directly, ignore the worlds, class gulf, religious divides between us, and just talk, woman to woman.
I want to ask her what’s bothering her. I want to tell her that each of us has our place in this world, that she can be pacing around for an hour, talking on the phone, distressing the carpet with the foot of her brand-name slipper, and that’s her thing, and that’s the problem of another class of people. Because I don’t think that any class or creed is impervious to problems. And having too much to do is a problem as well.
But of course, I don’t say anything. There’s something about her that keeps people at a distance. I try to respect it, even though I can be more open with the other ladies I work for, Haya and Havi.
Havi. Things haven’t been what they used to be between Havi and Brenda. Sisters-in-law, closer than real sisters, different kinds of women but strong women both. There for each other for years, until…?
Brenda fiddles with her phone, and I try to speak to her with my eyes before it rings again.
“So it’s okay? Your house two p.m. today for this new shiur? You’re the best, Brenda, I knew we could count on you.” Yael’s voice is modulated breathlessness. “I’m so sorry for the late notice.”
“It’s okay, it’s fine,” Brenda murmurs.
And it is. The dining room table is always draped in the damask runner; the silver sugar dish is out anyway. Hosting isn’t a big deal. It’s what the community’s come to expect of them, a sort of standard they’d set as an open home.
Ha. She hunts in the freezer for rugelach. A home of largesse that’s not even theirs.
Once it had been. Once, when Chaim was master of his dreams standing on the cusp of supposed greatness, he’d bought this brownstone as a first-time homebuyer for just five percent down, with a couple extra percentages deducted for being under thirty — he was twenty-nine-and-a-half at the time and proud as punch.
Brenda sets the rugelach out on a serving dish, puts out ginger ale, seltzer, and fluted glasses. Twenty years later, the pixie dust had long scattered. The payments had fizzled out after the first five years, the house was foreclosed, although by some miracle the new buyer allowed them to stay and rent. And Chaim is still scrambling to keep up his image. She gives the table a once-over; it looks effortlessly, understatedly classy. And you’re committed to that image too, it says.
She shuts the door on the thought. It’s noon already. She pours a cup of tea for Giana and makes her way upstairs.
She’ll get dressed for the shiur as though she always putters around the house in heels and jewelry. Rebbetzin Schreiner is new to the neighborhood. What had Yael called her? A rising star, a whole different kind of a light. She rolls her eyes. All these rebbetzins say the same thing — honor your husband, respect him, and then you’ll be the queen.
And she is the queen. His queen.
Giana takes the tea and gives her a searching look, like she wants to say something. Brenda fiddles with her phone. What does she know?
At two, the doorbell rings, and the women pile in, divesting themselves of light jackets and little clutches. They exchange pleasantries; mazel tov on Masha’s new grandson, how is Sarah’s mother doing? Watching them, Brenda feels apart. All of them have time on their hands, half-empty nests, youngest children in school — in that they are the same. But she sees suddenly in their middle-class mannerisms an ease she doesn’t have. They aren’t living a pretense, on borrowed time and borrowed money, and even, with this yerushah thing turning ugly, money that is not only borrowed but maybe outright charity.
Rebbetzin Schreiner claps her hands, smiles, then starts to talk.
Brenda finds herself smiling back, relaxing, and apparently missing the first few sentences. She startles as the rebbetzin’s voice rises an octave.
“So ladies, it’s time to ask ourselves, What do I want? Listen to your voice because the answers are within.”
Her passion is real, the woman is clearly in tune and comfortable with herself. Is it because she’s doing what she wants?
And yet. “Isn’t it ever about what he wants?” Brenda finds herself bursting out.
Women around the table are nodding.
But the young, serene rebbetzin is shaking her head. “Ladies, it starts with you. If you’re not in touch with what you want, if you deny your wishes, you’ll find yourself simmering with resentment, and it’ll seep out, and it won’t be worth it for either of you…
“I’ll leave you with this: Think about who you are and one thing you want.”
Brenda’s fingers follow the damask pattern and something inside pinches. Who am I? Married thirty years to the twenty years I was single. What do I want?
Already the women are pulling on jackets and scarves and floating out and into the foyer, where they mingle a moment. Giana, too, is putting on her coat.
The women leave, and Brenda fishes in her bag for her wallet.
“Nice crowd, a party?” Giana says conversationally.
“Not really, more like a shi— a lecture.”
“Havi wasn’t there, was she?”
Brenda freezes. How much does Giana know?
“Oh, it’s nothing.” Giana looks at her scarf. “I’m just asking because I’m going to her now…”
Brenda nods tightly, shakes her head, while something — something I want? — unspools in her chest.
A familiar honk-honk sounds from outside, and Chavi’s heart sinks.
Her watch says 3:30 p.m. but it’s Monday. On Mondays Ari has equine therapy at a ranch that’s a blessed forty-five minutes away. A whole hour-and-a-half of travel time, besides the session. He comes home after Giana has cleaned the house, and she has supper prepared and can give it to him before the others eat. Monday is for pretending that life can be normal.
She notices her cell phone flashing and grabs it as she flies down the stairs.
Text from Gila, 11:47 a.m.: So sorry, came down with flu, won’t be able 2 take Ari 2 therapy.
She was busy in her home office with the play script for the new seminary and hadn’t seen her phone, and now—
Someone is pummelling the front door. She opens it, and Ari barrels into her, arms outstretched.
“Huggie,” he says.
Chavi melts, and for one moment, frustration is overlaid by fierce love. She hugs him tightly. They disentangle, and Ari runs for the kitchen, Chavi running after him. She lives for these moments but they’re so fleeting. Are they enough to carry us through?
The doorbell rings and Giana walks in.
“Hello, Havi, and oh, the little man is home.”
“Volunteer canceled.” Chavi waves her phone ruefully. “I saw this too late to make any other arrangements.”
Giana goes up to Ari and holds out a palm. They high-five, the clap of impact ringing out. Giana fans her hand and pretends to blow on it. “Ow, Ari, what did you do to me?”
Predictably, he doesn’t respond, but still Chavi’s heart gives a tiny, tired lurch of anticipation. He could. They’re working on engaging him, and he could respond, but nine times out of ten he doesn’t, and she half wishes she could stop the lurching hope of her heart each time.
Giana starts on the dishes and says something over the running water.
“Over at her house… some women there… a lecture…”
“Who?” Chavi says, though she knows exactly who Giana goes to Monday mornings. They’ve had this schedule for what, ten years, more?
In those early days after Ari was born, life was a blur of appointments and tube-feedings and weight checks and the always hovering question, will he make it? That’s when Brenda had sent Giana over, giving up some of the precious time Giana could have been cleaning her own home.
And Giana got it, how Chavi wanted the beds made in the way she’d once seen them done in a hotel, the silverware laid precisely on their sides in their compartments in the drawer, and she also got why these things were important at a time that Chavi was plain exhausted by life. Mainly she got how Chavi wanted out, how sometimes, most times, she just wasn’t sure the blue bundle with the overwhelming medical paraphernalia was worth what it took, how she was scared to voice it, and anyway this was life now, she couldn’t, wouldn’t, stop.
Once, when Brenda was over, helping out with the other kids, Chavi had broken down in front of both of them. Chavi remembers how they each instinctively took one of her hands, Brenda taking little Ari from Chavi’s trembling arm, and Giana massaging the other.
Ari reaches for another cookie.
Chavi grabs the package. “No more, sir.”
He starts to fling himself.
Giana turns off the water and dries her hands. “I’ll take him to the playroom. You get started on supper.”
Chavi’s not going to protest or indulge the guilt. She’s going to make that big supper like she always does on Monday afternoons because it’s what she needs to do, what Mayer and the kids need, what they eat on Mondays and Tuesdays both.
She takes out the cookbook, some vegetables, and starts to slice eggplants on a rainbow-printed cutting board. Brenda is everywhere — a few months ago, they’d seen this set of rainbow kitchen utensils on sale, and they’d both bought them to make cooking supper more fun. Does Brenda use them? It’s hard to imagine them in her immaculate kitchen, and it’s not as if she can give her a quick call to find out — they haven’t spoken in two months, since the shivah. Chavi sighs.
She’d met Brenda in seminary, a class ahead of Chavi, one of those friendships that are special because they’re out of your immediate social circle. They’d been assigned together for some project, and reserved Brenda had really taken to Chavi. Even then, Chavi brought something out in her.
A year later Brenda married Chavi’s oldest brother, Chaim; five years Chavi’s senior, he was a refined Mr. Right, an oldest if there ever was one.
Chavi takes out oil and salt. What had Giana said? Brenda hosted a shiur today, smack in the middle of the day for those lovely ladies that could.
She’s glad she can’t. She loves her work directing plays. She needs it, the creativity, the money…
Maybe not the money. Not anymore. She starts to cut the eggplants the other way, dicing them up smaller and smaller. She catches sight of the recipe; the picture shows eggplant rounds. They’re meant to be sliced. She drops the knife. She can’t even cut vegetables right today.
On a whim Chavi unties her apron and slips out of the house.
The air is wet but bracing, and her feet lead her around the corner before she even knows where she’s going. It’s five minutes to her parents’ house. She stands in the dusk looking up at the house she grew up in. She tries the door; locked, obviously, who could be home? Her parents rest in their graves at the edge of town; Abba’s still mounded by fresh earth. She slinks around the side and eases the backyard gate open. Chavi sits on the old swing in the backyard and looks up at the house that’s now all hers, that Abba had bequeathed to her alone.
Sunday is my day off, save for two evening hours Brenda’s managed to finagle out of me.
I put on my sneakers, same as every day. I need the pump of those power soles for my job, but l can at least pretend I’m going jogging in Central Park. I walk in at West 66th Street and take the path toward the lake. I try for a jog, five minutes of straining muscles, and settle in for a shuffle.
It’s my day off but I’m thinking of my ladies.
Friends, sisters-in-law, almost sisters, Brenda and Havi. Forever asking me to ferry things between their houses, Brenda sending a little treat with a message: Tell Chavi it’s just for her, not the kids, Havi sending bags with kids’ clothing and then calling Brenda: What do you think of that bonnet / sweater / dress for Shiri? She doesn’t buy a single thing for her granddaughter without consulting madam-great-aunt-fashion-consultant, and suddenly silence. Six weeks, maybe two months — nada, nothing.
What could be worth fighting over?
A teenager in a hoodie passes and drops his unfinished burger bun on the ground. Birds swoop in. Nothing, I tell them. Nothing is worth fighting family over.
They look at me with solemn, beady eyes. They fly in flocks, they know to keep together.
Those ladies knew how, too. I was at Brenda’s for a year before she sent me to Havi, and it was a big deal for her, the kids were all over the place then, but she knew Havi needed me more.
I walk toward the lake, breathe in bluey-green and a faraway shore. When I was young there was this dream I cradled, a life I pretended I belonged to, that house Mama worked at where she’d often take me along Sundays because there was no school. That was family. Three, maybe four young ones, so many playmates. That wooden dollhouse with rooms enough for all of us. I claimed my two rooms on one side, playing good and quiet while they bantered, laughed, sometimes fought around me. I remember their dining room with a table bigger than I’d ever seen, and a chandelier hanging from a high ceiling that lit up little by little, like a sparkler, when you turned it on. A mom and a dad. A real family. Who were they? I can’t remember their names or if we played together or if I was just the help’s kid.
After a few times, I didn’t want to go. It was too hard to see them, the ideal family, and then go home to our little apartment. When Mama asked me to come again, I refused. “Fathers,” I said to her, “who needs them?” And she shook her head, and said, “Listen to me, Giana, it doesn’t always work out how you want, but remember that we’re strong, shining women. You have the sun inside you. And nothing can bring the sun down.”
I hear her words in my head. I should remind her. Ask Mama how she could keep being that sun, glide through other houses doing what she needed to do. And she was a feeler — as much as I am, maybe more. But what of clouds? Brenda’s house, Havi’s house, they’re thick clouds. Sun, what sun, Mama?
As if I’d remind her. As if she’d remember. She lives in the here, in the very now. And I hate to see her like that, because she’s so much larger than the given moment. Who is Mama without context?
I sigh, get back into a tepid jog. By the time I’m out of the park, it’s late noon.
I hurry over to Brenda’s. Her husband is leaving as I walk in.
“Brenda’s out this evening, she said you’ll know what to do. But actually, I wanted to ask you something.”
He seldom speaks to me.
“It’s Brenda’s fiftieth birthday next week. The kids and I want to surprise her, we’re planning a big bash at my parents’ house. I know Sunday’s your day off, but would you be able to give us a few hours to clean up and prepare next week?”
“Brenda’s fiftieth? Nice,” I say. “A few hours next Sunday? No problem.”
He hands me fifty dollars. I rummage for change.
“Keep it, it’s a tip,” he says, like a man who’s used to tipping.
I look up to thank him, see the wince in his eyes.
He leaves, and I run a vacuum cleaner through the rooms. It’s a light clean-up Brenda wants Sundays, just the floors all over and the kitchen counters.
In her bedroom I see a loose paper underneath the dresser, almost sucked into the vacuum cleaner. I bend to put it back on her night table and spot the notebook it’s been torn from. A rose decorates the cover. A diary?
Her business, not mine. But this page is ripped out and exposed in plain sight. I glance at it.
Rebbetzin Schreiner task:
What do you really want?
I want Chaim to make money / be happy / calm down.
I want Tehilla to
I want peace in this family, with Chaim’s family, with Chavi.
I suck in my breath.
We’re shining women. Be a sun, Giana.
I slip that desperate paper under the prim pink notebook. Let Brenda find it later. Let her think about what she wants.
And as for the tip I just got, what if I put it toward…?
Fifty. Fifty makes you think. Halfway to a hundred… Fifty makes you reach into yourself — and what do you find?
Maybe that’s why she hasn’t missed one of Rebbetzin Schreiner’s twice-a-week shiurim. Maybe that’s why she finds herself open to the words of a woman fifteen years younger who speaks truth without preamble, unconcerned about being popular, the straightest shooter.
“What are you guys up to?” Brenda asks her daughter.
Sunday is her birthday, and Chaim wanted the kids home for Shabbos — Tehila from her out-of-town seminary and the two boys from their yeshivos. The house clamors bein hazmanim-like with teenage banter.
“Don’t get all busy for Shabbos,” Chaim says. “Take it easy, it’s on us.”
She feels blessed. She is lucky, she tells herself, considering the rose on the cover of her diary — a Rebbetzin Schreiner-inspired purchase — late Thursday night. Though she feels like that rose, pink and in bloom in the vase, but browning within. Chaim and the kids have been bustling around all evening, and she hasn’t found a moment to tell him what she wants. But it’s not the moment, it’s the courage she can’t find.
Erev Shabbos, a small box arrives from The CakeMaker. A cake for one, white and pristine with a “fifty” embossed in icing. It can’t be from Chaim, it’s much too small for him. So whom?
She scans the card eagerly. Brenda, best wishes on your fiftieth, from someone who would never forget this day.
Her heart skips a beat. She drops the cake onto the counter. Chavi. Who else?
The CakeMaker, though? Chavi’s the type for something homemade. And she’s hardly one for obscure messages.
But what does Brenda know anymore? It’s been eight weeks and two days of silence between them.
After the meal, when the kids have floated off to read, Brenda prepares two lemon teas on a tray. She peeks into the fridge at the cake in its little box and walks back to the living room, resolved.
“Chaim,” she says, putting the tray down on the side table. She sits, bids the words to come. “I know how hard it’s been financially for so long. I know that we were hoping for our share of Abba’s house — if not a double share — and now it’s not meant to be…”
His eyes narrow.
She looks at the candles on the living room table, conjures Rebbetzin Schreiner sitting there like she was two weeks ago.
“It’s been hard,” she says, “but we pulled through somehow, and He’ll keep helping us. Hashem doesn’t need our ideas even if we thought our yeshuah would come through the yerushah. But in the meantime, Chaim, I can’t… I just can’t bear the fighting, the silence…”
She dredges up the two most important words of all: “I want.” She feels the urgency of it — and a thousand other wants — bursting over the shores of her heart. “I want peace. I want Chavi back in my life.”
Twenty-eight hours of calm. Ari spends every other Shabbos at the home of a respite volunteer. A small mercy, when they need so much more.
She waves too brightly as the door closes, then climbs back into the car.
“Was Ari okay?” Mayer asks.
“Thrilled,” she says. “At least, I think he was…”
“You have to think that.”
She smiles weakly, “Well, if you insist.”
Mayer turns the car toward home. Chavi sits back, grateful for the traffic, an extra few minutes of rest when she’s actually sitting in the front seat. On the way there she was in the back, next to Ari, trying to keep him under control.
They had reached the end of their rope a long time ago; they knew they couldn’t keep him home much longer. She was trying to fit an entire life into the space around a nine-year-old boy who consumed her whole. It wasn’t so much a decision to start the application process for a residential placement as much as a bitter realization that this was the next step. She’d tried to keep pushing, but it was over. That much was obvious.
But then, after she’d filled out those applications with shaky block capitals, guilt between every line, there was some major insurance issue. She remembers the day they got the letter: A residential placement wouldn’t be covered. If they wanted it, they’d have to pay out of their own pockets.
She’d walked around in a daze that day, and then Ari wouldn’t go to sleep, and she had to go over to Abba in the evening. She’d dragged him with her. He’d sat in the living room with Abba, rigid, good as gold. When Mayer came to take them home, Abba took Ari’s hand and got a rare smile out of him.
“My Ahrele,” Abba said.
He was named for Abba’s father, their only son after a string of girls. Then Abba spoke over Ari’s head, eyes plaintive, almost child-like. “Promise me you won’t send him away, you’ll keep him home, keep him close.”
She’d held onto the arm of the couch, winded, trying to breathe. Why now? Could Abba have known what they were planning?
Mayer had been the one to answer. He’d said something, soothing platitudes, “of course,” while she just shook her head. Abba didn’t have to know that they’d come within a hairsbreadth of it. What he didn’t know couldn’t hurt him.
Abba smiled. “Chavale, I’ll make sure you’re able to, leave it to me.” And even though they weren’t moving Ari out, not for another year at least, until they could maybe sort something out with the insurance, Chavi felt sick.
Two months later Abba left This World. After the shivah they read the will: he’d left them the entire house. It only made her feel worse; he’d given it on a false assumption, the whole thing was a mistake. She was ready to revoke it, to give two portions to Chaim and one to everyone else, and keep just a fifth. But Mayer was adamant, the will had listed no conditions, and they needed to live, she was entitled to a life that wasn’t only about Ari. As were he and the girls, too. And they’d need all the money to afford, for the short term, a residential placement without insurance, before trying insurance again.
Maybe Mayer was right, but it was also wrong. To use Abba’s house to put Ari in a home? And now Chaim wasn’t talking to her, and Brenda behind him, and everything was unraveling.
“You okay, Chav?” Mayer asks, pulling up in front of their house.
She rubs her eyes.
“Chavi, Shabbos is coming. Try to forget for a while.”
She half-nods, ducks out of the car and into the house. What still needs to be done? It’s an hour to shkiah, and Giana, bless her, is washing the kitchen floor.
Her phone pings loudly from her pocket. She reads the text.
Brenda: Thanks for the cake.
“What? What cake?”
Giana inches over. She puts down the mop.
Without thinking, Chavi waves the phone at her. “I don’t know what she’s talking about, I haven’t heard from her in… What cake?”
Giana looks down, bites her lip, then looks back at her. “I know it’s crazy, but can you take advice from an old woman? My mama used to say, ‘When they thank, accept.’”
“Giana,” Chavi says, “what do you know?”
Giana tells her.
Chavi shakes her head. “You sent it, and you wrote that it was from me?”
“I didn’t put your name on it… but I sort of, you know, let her think it was from you. Forgive me, Havi, I had to. And… and they’re making a party on Sunday for Brenda’s birthday at your parents’ house, maybe you should go?” This comes out in a rush, and she’s looking at Chavi, so contrite, so desperate, that despite herself, Chavi smiles.
For one second a thought rankles. At my parents’ house? Well, he still has the key, and it’s a good place for a party if they want to do something where Brenda won’t see them setting up… She flicks the thought away. Giana is looking at her, the picture of penitence.
“Giana, oh, Giana,” she manages, and just like that, both of them are laughing hysterically in the kitchen.
Brenda’s husband texts me the address. I follow directions, it’s not too far, maybe ten minutes from their house. I’m walking up the street and suddenly my knees feel weak. Three concrete steps up from the sidewalk, I am eight years old again.
I don’t know who I expect when the door opens but it’s not Tehila and the boys. I follow them inside. The place is dusty, maybe that’s why I’m sneezing, trembling? Tehila leads me into the living room. The table dominates the room, smaller than I remember, but I’ve seen a thing or two in life since. And then she flicks a switch and the light in the chandelier doesn’t go on all at once, but kind of gradually, spellbindingly, like a sparkler.
I close my eyes.
“You okay, Giana?” Tehila asks. “Is it the dust? I’ll get you some water.”
I sit down heavily at the table like the one I’d never sat at, where they used to eat, that family with the mom and the dad. His parents? I open my eyes. Get hold of yourself, of course not. Giana girl, it’s not a chandelier, those are spotlights in the ceiling. What do you think you’re seeing?
I wipe my brow. No, it’s not that house. The windows are in the wrong place. The memories don’t align with this reality and yet, yet, it’s one just like it, just like that the one with the dollhouse, the house that gave me the first image of family.
Tehila comes back with a glass of water, and Moishy hauls in a box of decorations and cranks up the music from his speakers, and I cannot sit there trying to evoke memories. The teenagers are waiting, Brenda’s husband hired me for the afternoon.
I grab a spray bottle. I think of Mama taking me along with her to work, in my Sunday best. She was on her own, and we did everything together those days. She stuck by me, and when I refused to come, she stayed home with me, forfeiting the money because she wouldn’t leave an eight-year-old herself. Because she wouldn’t leave me on my own.
I scrub wood furiously.
How could I have let her go now?
“Giana, how’s this?” Tehila holds up a balloon banner, and I squint and motion a tad upwards.
By the end of the hour, the house is strung with decorations, we set that place up like a party out of a fairy tale. The kids are laughing, they even get a laugh out of me, though I’m still breathing heavy. C’mon Giana, it’s a fluke, this shock, these old houses all look the same.
I gather my stuff to leave and look back at the dining room. Even with the decorations flapping merrily, the room looks timeless. Who knows?
And us folks, we don’t believe in flukes, Mama used to say.
I walk out. It’s almost dusk, and maybe we don’t believe in flukes, because I’m heading to the subway.
How long has it been since I’ve seen her last? The machine eats up my subway card, then spits it out. I walk through.
What was I doing, keeping Mama alive in my head because I wanted to hold onto a certain picture of her, scared of tainting that by confronting the woman she’s become?
I sit on the train for the hour’s ride. The dementia has stolen my mama, she’s no longer the mama I remember, or want to remember. But she’s still Mama.
The train roars through the underworld and the darkness outside forms a mirror of the glass, and I sit there looking endlessly at a slightly-distorted reflection of myself. My throat tightens. Brenda and Havi — why did I get involved in their family drama? Why did it eat at me so much that I had to do something? Projection, they call it, trying to change them because of what’s going on in me.
I think of Havi’s face, how we’d laughed over that cake — things would work out between them. But the train rattles on and I look my reflection in the eye: It’s time to do something for Mama, for myself.
(Originally featured in Mishpacha, Issue 907)
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