What will be when Tatte falls over and he needs a strong arm to help him up?
Holding the picture of the three girls—Hannah, Perla, and Becca — Emmy kneels beside her Zeide. “Zeide, can I take it with me?”
“Emmy!” Hannah steps towards her daughter, stretches her hand to pluck the photograph away. Emmy holds it away. “I’m allowed to ask, am I not?”
Hannah turns to look at Tatte. His eyes are still clear, his composure unruffled. Does the photograph not mean something to him?
“It’s just, how will I persuade people to help me find her if I do not know what she looks like? And it’s not only for me.” Emmy lifts the picture towards her face. “When you look—the heart-shaped face, long lashes, the stare so old and composed, though she is the size of a child… well, then, she no longer just another little Jewish girl no one cares about. She is a person.” Emmy pauses and looks down at the picture. “And she is beautiful.”
Tatte’s shoulders are bent as he looks up at them, sadly. “So you are leaving, eh? Heading back to your promised land.”
Hannah puts her hand on his shoulder. He covers it with his own; his fingers gnarled like an old twig, the skin hanging loose as if his spirit has suddenly shrunk, leaving his body too large for him.
Emmy looks at them for a moment. “Zeide, Prague is no promised land.”
“And why not? No goyim harassing. Attacking.”
“Not in the same way, true. They do not tackle the young boys in the streets on the way to cheder. But—”
What is he trying to say? Is this some kind of recrimination—you return to dreamland and leave us at the mercy of the Jew-haters? But what is she to do about it? Hannah speaks gently. “We have our fair share, Tatte. They just show it differently.”
He sighs. “So we are not at rest anywhere.” He pauses. “There has been talk, you know, of the Promised Land.” He drums his fingers on the table, unsettled. “Buying land from Arabs or the Ottomans and becoming farmers. Can you imagine, Yidden being farmers?
“But there is no need for taverns there, as the Moslems do not drink, so they cannot be tavern-keepers. And there are only so many craftsmen each town needs. Not everyone can be a porter or a shoemaker or a tailor. So—farmers!”
“It is strange, is it not?” Hannah tries to imagine it: long peyos tucked behind ears, hands clutching spades. Shielding themselves from the hot sun, instead of the ice and snow.
Tatte’s hand—his worn, loose-skinned hand punctuates the air. “There are some rabbanim who say, better try your fortune against the Arabs, than head to the treifere medinah.”
Emmy holds the picture loosely by her side. She has won that particular battle. How does she always manage to get exactly what she wants? She pipes up. “America. Mama always says that even if she were given the choice, she would not go there. Not even for a visit.”
Tatte smiles and Hannah is filled with sudden joy that he is proud of her. “Yes, she is a good girl, your mother. And wise, too. If we don’t know who we are in Europe, how would we know who we are in a place like America? Besides, I’ve heard that everyone in American drinks and gambles and has a gun. It is a place filled with…how do they call them? Robbers and cowmen.”
Emmy chuckles. “Cowboys, Zeide. It’s a big place, bigger than Galicia and Bohemia together, maybe even as big as Russia. There are masses of people. To say all people in America are cowboys is like saying all Jews have big noses.”
“There is truth to that, too.”
Emmy’s hand creeps up to her face. “I am quite fond of my nose.”
Hannah steers the conversation away from noses. “Tatte? Yidden are really going to Eretz Yisrael?” Sarah had told her about some interest from Ostjuden, but had dismissed the idea.
“What’s so new? Yidden have always gone to Eretz Yisrael. The Baal Shem Tov—”
“He never got there.”
“Yes, but he tried. And then others went after him.”
“No, but now… The people who are going are ordinary people, are they not?”
“Yes, from the Pale. Yidden who have been driven from the shtetlach by the pogroms. And you hear about it here and there. A family from Warsaw. This one’s second cousin’s brother-in-law. You hear about it a little. And what should I tell you? Ten years ago, no one would have thought of it.”
Hannah bites her lip and nods.
“Why, Chanale? Why do you want to know?”
Chasya’s face flashes into her mind. Maybe when Leibele and the baby are a little bigger, it would be a place for her, instead of continuing west to the new world. There’s something pure about that woman. It would be a shame to see her continuing to America.
She hesitates, and Emmy talks for her. “Oh, she’s searching for another good subject for Felix to write an article about, aren’t you, Mama. After the last one was such a hit, Felix has to follow it by something good. Really good. It’s all about reputation in his field.”
Hannah closes her mouth and opens it again. “Well, I’m sure that many people would find it a very interesting topic.”
Outside, the carriage stands ready. A group of little boys—with big eyes and worn caps and the elation that comes from seeing a horse and carriage only a few times a year (the old horse and cart of the village doesn’t count) gather in a tight knot around the creatures.
One boy holds out a carrot. The driver tries to shoo him away—the horse has already eaten today. But he’s no match for the boys. One bangs on a rusty tin, distracting the driver. The boy with the carrot holds it out eagerly and the horse opens his mouth, showing its large, yellowing teeth, and takes a bite.
Hannah has not been able to eat all morning. Mama hands her a bag of provisions for the journey and she finds that she can’t even thank her. There’s something in her throat and her eyes and she blinks away the tears for although her stomach cannot eat, her eyes are hungry. Mama’s grey eyes, one slightly darker than the other. Her half-smile. The little liver spot above her jawline. The way her kerchief rests on a crease in her forehead.
Disappointment gnaws at her too.
All week, she had waited for Shabbos morning, when the men would still be davening and she’d sit down with her mother and a thick slice of babka, the kind only her mother can make, and just talk. She wants to tell her about Emmy, about her disappointment, about how hard it is to raise a daughter, especially in the city, especially when they, all the family is perched on a rocking horse that tips first towards modernity and then back towards the ways of old.
She wants to tell her mother that despite Emmy’s pronouncement that she will not marry, she believes that with time her heart will mend, and hopes that Emmy will be a better person for it. Her granddaughter may appear frivolous, but she is a lovely girl, yes, a little headstrong, but nothing compared to Becca, and she may be a little lazy but she has a good heart. She can be trusted. She wants to hear her mother say the words, Emmy is a wonderful girl. She wants to hear her mother say, You have done a fine job as a mother.
None of that happened, because on Shabbos morning, her mother simply slept. It had worried her so much that she had gently opened her parents’ door and peeked inside. Her mother was wrapped warmly in her quilt—those quilts had been Ernst’s idea; they’d sent them as a gift a few years before—and her face was peaceful. Something had jerked inside her.
Now, she clutches the bag of food. “Will you come to Prague to visit us?” she asks.
Her mother smiles at her and strokes her cheek. “I think not.”
Another pounding in her chest. Mama is right. Why pretend? But without pretending—they will meet again soon, perhaps they will all be together for Pesach—how can she bear this?
Ernst had suggested once, when she had worried out loud about her parents’ aging, that they move them to Prague to be nearby. Surely Ernst could find them a pretty apartment nearby, and they could see them every day.
But Hannah had shaken her head. To take them away from the tin-roofed shul, the neighbors’ yenting, the little children running through the street when cheder was over—even to wrest them from the kevarim of their parents—would be cruel.
She leans forward and Mama draws her close. Hannah closes her eyes. It’s no use, though. Her mother’s collarbone is hard, and she has shrunk; the embrace feels wrong, somehow.
Outside, the horses are contented but the driver grows impatient. And at the end of the ride, there is a train to catch. Emmy is already outside.
Tatte puts his hand on her head and gently kisses her.
There is a rising in her chest, she breathes it out in the hope that the sob will vanish.
Is this what happens when you move away from the people you love? You do it so cavalierly, thinking it is only you who will miss them. But then the years pass and you realize that you grow entrenched in your place and your parents grow old, and for all of the poetry about hearts being together, and living in each others’ thoughts and spirits, well, it’s not enough.
It’s not enough, because what will be when Tatte falls over and he needs a strong arm to help him up? Mama doesn’t have that strong arm, so she has to wait outside the house until someone comes by who can help. And it’s not enough, because you also miss out on all those tiny ways you can make their life smooth and happy. Who else will make Mama a steaming glass of cinnamon tea, just the way she likes it? And yes, she can do it herself, but when she’s tired, at the end of the day, and her joints ache her, then she won’t, for it’s too much trouble, and you could have done that for her, you could have been there.
Tatte gently shepherds her out the front door. The driver opens the carriage door. Emmy is already inside. Mama has lifted her apron and is dabbing at her eyes. Tatte just stares.
She cannot see anymore, but there is a touch. Warmth. Emmy’s hand grips her own and now she allows the tears to fall. Emmy gives her a handkerchief, but she does not bother wiping away the tears.
Emmy leans towards her and kisses her wet cheek.
Hannah turns and offers a weak smile. But there is another wrench inside. It will not be too long before she is standing, watching a carriage roll away, and it will be Emmy or Felix inside, for one day, surely, they too will travel away to lives of their own.
Felix turns his head and examines his cheek in the mirror. He dips his finger in another of his mother’s expensive creams and smears it over the bruise. It doesn’t help. Emmy has a slightly darker complexion, but if she detects that he has touched any of her precious creams, he will be in a worse position than he is now.
His mother is forever powdering her nose, but she does not leave it at that. She powders her forehead and even her neck. He had asked about it once, and she had told him that doing so ensure a uniform color over all her skin.
He fishes out the large powder puff, and enthusiastically powders his forehead, his nose, taking extra care over the large bruise that blooms all over his left cheek. He even remembers the folds of his ears.
He looks at himself from this way and that. A sigh. He looks ridiculous.
He takes a step away and looks again through narrowed eyes. Maybe.
Another step away and with dim light. His father surely will not notice a thing.
Gertrude is banging the pans in the kitchen. He sighs. His bones ache. The softness of his bed calls to him, but Papa…
The door. He washes his hands, swiftly returns Mama’s pots of cream to their place and hurries to the dining room. He bows his head to his father and wishes him a good evening.
“Good evening, Felix.” Papa’s days work up towards the evening, so he becomes sharper and more energetic as the day progresses.
Felix takes his place at the table and Papa washes his hands and settles into his chair at the table’s head. He shakes out the linen napkin and lays it carefully over his lap. Gertrude, hearing the chairs, walks in with the soup tureen and ladles a bowl for Papa, then for him.
“Thank you, Gertrude,” Papa says, and lift his spoon.
As he does, he looks over at Felix.
“Felix, my boy, what in the world have you got smeared all over your face?”
(Originally featured in Family First, Issue 704)
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