It is her own fault. If she would have taken charge of her family, of her cleanliness, then none of this would be happening
Shani Leiman with Zivia Reischer
A quick foray into her mother’s kitchen and Hannah returns to the bedroom, where she and Emmy are staying. “Emmy,” she whispers.
Emmy is lying on the bed, still resting from the journey.
“Emmy, supper is kasha and mushrooms.”
Emmy’s nose wrinkles and her lips pull into a picture of disgust. “You promised, Mama. You said there would be no kasha.”
“I said you would not have to eat the kasha.”
“It’s not just kasha. It is kasha with mushrooms. As Shneur would say, it has a different din. You can always pick out the mushrooms, and eat just those.”
The mushrooms were probably gathered months ago, dried and stored carefully, brought out on special occasions, such as when you first see your granddaughter after years.
“But then I’ll be hungry.”
Hannah looks at her daughter. Such a thing, for Emmy, is unthinkable. Hunger. She doesn’t realize that hunger is not the worst thing in the world, by far. Even when you are hungry, you can pummel your fist into your stomach so that it doesn’t hurt so much, run to climb the trees in the forest, or rolls down the hill next to the wheat field. You can hollow out a forgotten stack of hay and make a secret room.
“Emmy, there is eierkichel in my bag. And I brought smoked salmon.”
“That was a gift.”
She had bought two thick slabs; one for Shneur and one for Tatte and Mama. She will have to divide one into two, and keep the second slab here in the bedroom for Emmy. They will hang it out of the window to keep it cold. As long as no one smells the distinctive odor and asks what it is.
But then, everyone will smell it. There are no secrets in the shtetl, apart from when there are.
Over supper, Emmy eats her mushrooms like a lady, smiling and complimenting Mama, who beams with pride and keeps reaching out and patting Emmy’s hand, as if to convince herself that this is real, that they are really there with them, together. When Mama’s face is turned, Hannah slips half Emmy’s kasha onto her own plate. She doesn’t mind kasha. It is hot and bland and gives her a feeling of fullness that makes her feel like she could eat it endlessly.
“And Ernst is well?” Tatte asks.
“Yes, baruch Hashem.”
“And Felix, too? Felix is well?”
“Still learning in that …”
“University?” Emmy supplies. “No, Zeide. Now he is writing for a newspaper.”
“Writing, eh? Could be worse. Maybe we can still make a talmid chacham out of him.”
“From your mouth to G-d’s ears,” says Hannah.
Emmy puts down her fork and turns to her. “But Mama, you are very proud of Felix and what he is doing. Why would you want him to do anything else?”
Tatte leans forward. He pulls one hand through his white beard. “What does he write about?”
Emmy pulls back her chair. “He is at present writing a piece about the atrocities done to the Jews from Russia.”
Tatte breaks out into a smile; his wrinkles rearrange on his face and quiver with humor.
“Ah, so he is speaking truth. Not like some newspapermen. He is defending the Eibeshter’s children. So it must be that he is already a Torah scholar, for he loves the truth.”
Something rises inside her, a bubble of gratitude maybe, or calm: this is going to be all right. Tatte will not allow Emmy to make him into an enemy, he is too wise and has too much love in his heart. She need not have worried so.
“It is true, Tatte, we are proud of him.”
Her mother leans over again and feasts her eyes on Emmy. “And what of you, Emmy? Nu, Hannah, no shidduchim ready and waiting?”
Inside, Hannah groans.
Emmy gives a tight smile. “Come, Bubbe, it is a different world today. And I have decided that I do not want to marry.”
That night, Hannah is comforted by the sweet smell of the straw mattress. In the cot next to her, Emmy is fast asleep, oblivious that her words had fired a gun, insensible to the damage, the thud and noise and fire and breakage.
She is simply hurt, Hannah reminds herself. That’s the reason you brought her here, so she would heal.
She could change her mind. She could change her mind tomorrow. Mayebe she changed her mind even before she fell asleep.
She’s a little girl, really.
But she’s not.
Chasya is around the same age, and when she thinks of that, she cannot help the disappointment that creeps into her heart, although it makes her feel ashamed. After all, what is Emmy apart from the child she herself molded?
She traces the beams of the ceiling: There’s a little light from the moon, which filters in from the window. She would get up and close the curtains, but it is so very cold that she cannot bring herself to move.
What kind of a person would Emmy be if she had grown up here?
Strange, but the house is larger than their home in Prague. It has a sprawling quality, a charm that comes from a house that is continually being built, each room an afterthought of the next. Each telling the story of their family.
The main house is really just the kitchen and a second room. Tatte had told her once that when he and Mama had married, they were the richest couple in the village. Who else had a dining room and a bedroom and a room to relax and a room to learn and a room to entertain guests. If it was all in the same space, what did that matter?
Slowly, they had added. The dry-good store at the back. A bedroom for Shneur. Another for the girls. A storage barn. For all the difficulties, it had been a good place to grow up.
Although. Although. Her heart squeezes. Perla.
But that could have happened anywhere, in any village.
Not so much in Prague. Not really in the city.
Thank You, Bashefer, for keeping my children safe. She whispers into the night.
Safety is everything. And if it means that Emmy is a little complacent, maybe a little… spoiled, isn’t it worth it?
Shneur’s voice echoes through her head. “There is no life without suffering.”
Or Felix, in his Shakespeare phase: “When we are born, we cry that we are come to this stage of fools.”
Is that true? She has always thought that we cry when we are born because when we enter the world, the lantern that has shone above our heads for nine months, comforting, warming, showing the way, is extinguished. And all we can do is manage with a gas lamp or the faint light of the moon.
What does Emmy want if she does not want to marry? What has she been taught to want?
Is a meaningful life like a Bach concert, you merely need to show up and listen, be lifted up by something that is given to you? Or is it something you work for, day after day? The same way you bite your tongue enough and eventually, you’re not tempted to give the sharp comment, and you start to see that people feel safe with you, because you are not about to judge them and find them wanting. And there it is, the fruits of your labor.
And if your sharpness still needs a way out, there is a pen and there is paper, and here and there, a good friend with whom you might indulge. But not your family.
Especially not your daughter.
Even when she declares to your frail and elderly parents that she does not want to marry.
Becca stands across from Rahel’s mother with her hands on her hips. “My mother never took off her head-covering, either. “
She is talking a mixture of Ladino and French and throwing in a few words of Turkish, too. She hopes that Diamenta understands, at least something. She wishes she could throw open the window so there’d be more air in this cramped and stuffy room. As it is, the place smell of lice oil: anise and cinnamon and tea leaves, mixed in overpowering quantities.
Diamenta shakes her head. “No one uncovers my hair.”
Becca sighs. Her arms ache from the hours she has spent combing out Rahel and her little brother. She went through the baby’s head, too, strand by strand, as she didn’t want to douse him with the oil she had bought from the marketplace.
“Listen, Diamenta. If you have lice — and it’s fine, it is just one of those things, but it is not comfortable, is it? — then Rahel and the children will get it again.” She mimes, scratching her head. “So we have to get rid of the lice that you may have, so that everyone will be—” She is about to say clean, but that will insult her. “So that everyone will be comfortable.” She mimics a big sigh of relief. “You see, no more scratching. Nice. Very nice.”
Diamenta just stares. A diamond in the rough, Becca mentally plays with her name. She is, actually, quite beautiful. Tall cheekbones, large dark eyes. Something quick and also graceful about her moves. Next to her, Becca feels clumpy, a shtetl girl who eats too much barley soup. Not that she is large, not like the rich folk. But there is more of her than of this willowy woman, who looks like the wind could pick her up and carry her away.
“I have an idea,” she says. “What if I hold a blanket over your head, and then we do it like that?”
She tries to demonstrate.
Diamenta thinks for a minute, then picks up the sheet from Rahel’s bed and hands it to Becca. Becca blinks. Hygiene, she supposes, is a step-by-step learning process. Akin to learning the alphabet, one letter at a time. Today is L.
Diamenta sits down and Becca holds the sheet over her head. It would be easier if she could drape it over something, and have both hands available for the work she is about to begin. Diamenta holds it with both hands, Becca holds with one hand, and with the other, she grabs the bottle. She grimaces and uncorks it with her teeth. Swallow the choke, Becca. This long, endless afternoon will be over soon.
The sheet quivers. She looks and sees Diamenta’s hands trembling.
Well, it is her own fault. If she would have taken charge of her family, of her cleanliness, then none of this would be happening.
She is about to reach into the sheet and pour the oil, but she hesitates. Hannah wouldn’t do it this way. She would make sure that the woman is comfortable, offer soft words, and only then would she begin.
The children are playing softly in the corner. The baby is sleeping. There is time for this.
Becca walks around the chair and kneels down in front of Diamenta. “Is all well with you?” she asks softly.
The woman nods.
“We can wait a few minutes, if you would like.”
Diamenta shakes her head.
“Are you afraid? If if drips into your eyes, it will sting a little, so perhaps it would be better to cover your eyes with a cloth. That is what I did with Rahel.”
Diamenta bites her lip and shakes her head.
What is wrong with the woman? She is acting as if the whole world is coming to an end. If she would pull herself together, show a little strength, then all this would be done quickly and efficiently.
“Did you ever have your head cleaned before? It will not take too long, and it will not hurt.”
“Not even as a child?”
Diamenta shakes her head. She looks into Becca’s face, searching for something. What? Her dark eyes meet Becca’s and then flit away, so she is looking into the distance. “You see, I never had a mother.”
Becca gently picks up the woman’s hand and holds it in her own.
to be continued…
(Originally featured in Family First, Issue 699)
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