“Hey, no fair, it’s my birthday and I don’t even get a piece,” I say
“Thanks so much for coming with me to help out,” Aunt Shevi says.
We’re driving back from Bubby’s house. Bubby’s been home for a few weeks already, but she can’t do very much around the house, so the aunts have been taking turns going over to prepare supper, help out with the cleaning… things like that.
Today, Shevi asked me to go with her, which is… unusual, but I guess she thought she could use another pair of hands, and her kids are much younger.
“Sure, it was my pleasure,” I tell Shevi. I mean it. Unlike Aunt Chana, who kind of made it her business to be my surrogate mother from the get-go, I don’t know Aunt Shevi too well. But she’s sweet and fun — and young, much younger than Chana and my mother — and I’d enjoyed chatting with her as we cleaned the (pretty much clean) dining room and prepared oven-baked schnitzel and rice. Honestly, I’m not sure what I was needed for, but hey, it’s not like I have anything better to do with my time.
I’d been hoping to see Bubby, but she wasn’t home. Maybe she had an appointment? I think Chana might have been over earlier to pick her up. She has all this rehab and everything, check-ups — it’s been hard.
We pull into Aunt Chana’s driveway. “I’m coming in for a minute, I need something from Chana,” Shevi tells me.
I press the combination code and start walking inside.
“SURPRISE!” The word explodes from the dining room, along with what sounds like a hundred party poppers going off at once.
O-M-G, are they serious?! This is literally the kind of surprise party that only happens in books. Whoa. I’m… a little shell-shocked, to be honest.
How did they know it’s my birthday?
And… this is crazy, really crazy.
One entire wall of the dining room is covered with metallic balloons; silver, pale pink and sparkly, and a huge “15” made of helium balloons is floating in front of it.
There’s a table covered in a sequined silver tablecloth with acrylic stands holding dozens of handcrafted cookies with flowery writing, Happy 15th Birthday. Little trays hold party food so delicate and elegant as only the British can make. There are mini rolls with sliced cucumbers, crystal jugs of juice, and water with lemon slices, and the pride of the place at the center, a pink and white piped cookie cake in the shape of a 15.
Oh. My. Goodness. This is like a garden party at Buckingham Palace.
I look around, half shell-shocked, half touched. Aunt Chana and her family are clapping and laughing, my brother Yaakov is schmoozing with one of the uncles, and my other cousins are there, too, including Uncle Yossi who drove in from another neighborhood with his family. And of course, Bubby is sitting on the armchair beaming.
“This is… wow,” I say.
Raizy, perched on the coffee table together with Uncle Yossi’s daughter Bella, grins. “We did a good job hiding it from under your nose, huh?”
Raizy. I mean, it’s been a few weeks since I moved in here, and I guess that does something to a relationship, but sometimes, I feel like I need to pinch myself.
“Ashira!” I hear a faint but familiar voice — and I turn. There on a small side table is Aunt Chana’s laptop, with my family waving excitedly on the screen, laughing at my surprise.
“Ashira, look what we made for your birthday!” squeals Mali. Abba adjusts the screen and a moment later I see a huge chocolate-covered cake heavily sprinkled with colored stars. Oooh, that’s a real special occasion in India, using precious American products.
“Hey, no fair, it’s my birthday and I don’t even get a piece,” I say.
“You can come!” Baruch calls.
“I wish,” I say, and then — whoops — remember my audience. “I mean, you guys should come here! And bring the cake along! It’s a real party here.”
It’s so good to see them all. I know that Ima told me repeatedly that things are okay where they are in India, that the demonstrators are in far-off regions, but still, I couldn’t help but worry the past few weeks.
I want to talk to my family longer, but apparently there’s a party happening. We cut the cake, there’s so much food, even some kind of game… it’s fun. There’s not much my family can see over the screen though, and I’m sad when my parents end the call.
Am I a baby? I just miss my family so, so much. Even with Raizy acting friendly. Even as I realize I’ve kind of found my place among my cousins. And even with Bubby talking about how it’ll soon be time for me to move back in with her….
I almost blurt something about this to Raizy when we’re getting ready for bed later.
“Wasn’t that fun?” she asks me as she finishes blow-drying her hair and ironing it stick-straight. The girl does her hair like that Every. Single. Night. For school.
“Yeah,” I say, “Just….”
Then I remember it’s Raizy I’m speaking to. Not my sisters, not my mother, and not a best friend. Although, come to think of it, Raizy might be the best friend I have here, simply because I don’t have anyone else. How sad is that.
“Just what?” Raizy says, as she stops doing her hair. She flops onto her bed, props head on elbow, and looks at me with wide eyes.
“Nothing,” I say, but I have to tell her something. And clearly, she’s expecting some big personal revelation here.
My gaze falls on the diary next to my bed, the one that comes with me wherever I go, and without thinking I say, “Just that it’s strange that I’m here. My mother also moved when she was around our age. But she left England, and I came here. Weird, no?”
Raizy nods, contemplative. Forget Ima, this is weird, DMC-ing with my cousin who’s been either snobbing me out or coolly tolerating my presence all month. I mean, okay, we sort of learned to get along — we had to, but….
“What did happen with your mother?” she asks.
I give her a bare-bones story, minus the diary part. That’s not for her to know.
As I’m talking, I realize just how many loose ends there are. So many things that just… don’t add up.
“Girls?” Aunt Chana knocks and peeps inside. “Girls, it’s late, okay? I’m just reminding you.”
She stops short, seeing us engrossed in conversation. “What’s up, girls?”
I find it funny that she expects her teenage daughter and niece to confide in her, but I guess she knows Raizy better than I do because the next thing I know, Raizy’s piping up, “Mommy, we were just talking, and what really happened? Why did Aunt Shayna go to America in the first place?”
Aunt Chana looks from Raizy to me. “What do you mean?” she asks. “Don’t you know?”
I might as well try my luck. “I know about the school, the learning disability, but something is not adding up. Is that really all? Why did Bubby and Zaidy send her so far? Why did she stay after seminary? And….”
Aunt Chana’s mouth opens. “You don’t know?” She says, shaking her head in a kind of wonder. “So, Shayna’s even more special than I used to think.” She pauses, for one agonizingly long second. “I think it’s… right for you to know the story.”
To be continued…
(Originally featured in Mishpacha Jr., Issue 964)
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