| Calligraphy |

Scents of Home

For one second, an avalanche of questions: What would Ahrele do? Where would he go? Could he ever go back to the way things were? And from there?

"It’s not okay.”

He shuts the door and takes the three flights of stairs down to the street, past the houses of Batei Ungarin, up, toiling up, through Geula.

“Not everything is, you know,” he calls back to the street of dirty-white stone.

He shouldn’t have been home. He shouldn’t have been there when Ruchelle fell, that old chair leg breaking clean in half beneath her. He should’ve had his own home by now, his own set of chairs.

Past Malchus Wachsberger and H Bagel and Hayad Hashni’ah Furniture.

He scowls. Mamme said it’s fine. She’d felt Ruchelle’s arm, definitely not a fracture. The chair was okay, one less, what did it matter? And if it did, Hashem yaazor, they’d find the money, they’d have what they needed. That’s the hard bit, that she’s so okay — when it isn’t okay. So maddeningly accepting. S’iz gut, azoi gut.

For once, just once, Ahrele needs her not to be calm and placid as a lake. He needs her to be a river, angry, rushing over boulders, charting her destiny. Not just pooling around the rocks, letting her struggles shape her.

Tzivia the almuneh. Tzivia the gutte.

It’s not always okay.

He plunks down three shekels on the wooden counter of Pitzuchei Mashiach’s open display.

“Papitas, ken?”

He nods.

“Mah od, chabibi?”

He shrugs and is off, the brittle salted seeds between his teeth.

Half a bag later, he’s there, atop the hill. The land of the Amerikayim.

Snatches of English on the breeze. Couples and kids and ice coffees and blue slushes, ten minutes and a world away from the gold kaftans and faded housedresses. He stops to catch his breath near a wall, wondering at the people.

They’d come here to Jerusalem. So many of them. And he thought, in his childhood dreams, that he’d go there. Get away, make his fortune, do everything his parents hadn’t done. They’d never left the land. Tatte had lived out his forty-two years, barely ever leaving Meah Shearim. Mamme spent all day in the apartment in Batei Ungarin, talking to those who sought her counsel.

Once he’d been friends with Shmulik and Baruch, dreaming and scheming together. They’d both gone to America. Shmulik at the end of one hard yeshivah year, and Baruch as a chassan. The rest of his yeshivah crowd were married — most of them. Probably fathers as well; he tried not to keep track.

He leans against the wall, picks absently at the signs. Shmulik, when he came back for Succos, was full of stories of offices and gvirim. Baruch married there and never came back. But he, Ahrele, was still here, knocking around the kollel, doing this job or that, not quite an alter bocher, but close enough. What was it with him? That he never had the guts? Or his parent’s conviction — maybe it went deeper than he knew?

A small “For Rent” sign comes off the wall in his hand. He tries to tack it back among the other notices for dirahs probably long rented out.

Maybe he should be an apartment broker, like every other young man in the city. He sighs and scans the other notices.

The names of the dead live on the wall. His own father’s name was there for too many weeks. In the corner, he sees a notice. Looking for a live-in aide for an older man in Romema. Good pay for the right candidate.

Hmm. Inevitably, he thinks of Zeide, living in their home for twenty years. Outliving Tatte. When Ahrele was eight or nine years old, he’d help Zeide get dressed, take him down the stairs, help him in shul. He can do this.

He dials the number.

A woman answers. “When can you come for an interview?” she asks him.

Interview, well. “Now?”

He finds the building, takes the mirrored elevator, and knocks on the door. The woman introduces herself as Mrs. Miller and shows him to an armchair. He sits on the edge, wanting to sink into the soft leather, and then thinks of Ruchelle and can’t lean back.

They sit across from him on the ottoman, woman of the house, seventy maybe, and her two sons.

“Tell us why you’d want to do this…” the son says, pointing beyond, to the room where the man presumably is. Why didn’t they introduce him?

He starts to talk. “When I grew up, my grandfather was…” He looks at the room, full of things: couches, side tables, display cabinets. “My grandfather was a part of the furniture. A part of us, he made us who we were. His end was long, sometimes hard, but we lived with it. He was in our home until the very last day.”

Ten minutes later, he walks out with instructions to be back tomorrow — with his belongings.

He takes the elevator again, looks at himself in the mirror. Sometimes you want to get away, but you end up coming back to what you know.

  

The apartment smells of burnt roses. Of home.

Some people had roast beef in the oven, or potato stew; others had rose petals.

Mamme believed in the healing power of scent, of natural remedies. She’d been making her own potions — to give out, sometimes to sell — for as long as he could remember. Potpourri sachets are her specialty.

Ahrele takes out a valise and puts it on the floor.

His mother sits at the table, destemming more roses, scattering them onto parchment paper, smearing lemon-oil around. She doesn’t ask, just sits, her unhurried actions encouraging him to talk — if he wants to.

Ever the listener.

“I got a job,” he says without preamble. “I’m going to be living up there.” He jabs a finger toward the window. “In Romema, an older man, an Americaner, been unwell for a while but he’s deteriorating, his mind, his body… He needs help.”

She adds strips of lemon peels and clementine peels to the mixture.

“All those years with Zeide, I’ve been trained in alright.”

“You have, you have,” she murmurs, and there’s a smile in her voice. She tosses fruit and flowers around, and speaks almost to herself. “You make a hard decision, you take an ailing father in, and you stretch yourself thin for him, for a houseful of young children. And sometimes, sometimes, you see it paying off. Like this.”

He gathers a few shirts, a tallis katan, his hat.

“Listen, Ahrele, they’re nice? You’re happy? I’m happy for you. You’ll be close, but you’ll be there.”

He zips the bag and she says something quietly: “Where you think you want to be.”

He’s about to ask her to repeat herself, but she’s moving away, toward the oven. She spoons some rose mixture into a cloth, ties it with a string.

“Nu, take this. Fun der mamme. From all of us — Shprintza made the lemon oil.”

His married sisters, they were good with this life too.

“I’ll be back for Shabbos,” he says.

He stuffs the bag in his trouser pocket and wonders at his mother’s simplicity.

  

The old man, Reb Nochem, can’t talk clearly anymore. But that’s not the same as not talking. He can communicate.

Ahrele eases him into his wheelchair, and they sit on the porch, drinking tei. He gauges the temperature of the older man’s glass with his pinky, surreptitiously adds some cold water. He helps him drink.

Reb Nochem gives him a look, says something that Ahrele strains to hear. “Scalding, or it’s not worth drinking.”

Ha. He still has a voice, still has a will. Ahrele pours out the tepid water and makes him a new tea. Let him have it like he wants it.

The porch is adorned with flowers. He breathes in. Ah. Mamme would love this. She grew her herbs on the tiny laundry porch that never gets kissed by the sun. In Meah Shearim they lived in the shadows, while these people owned the sky. The Millers got an experience every time they came out to their porch — mountain air, dotted villages in the distance, red rooftops. He could get used to this.

Far in the distance are the houses of Batei Ungarin.

“I live there,” Ahrele points.

Reb Nochem coughs, struggles to talk in a squeak of a whisper. “And your father is…?”

“Was.”

He watches the old man’s face change, feels his empathy.

“Reb Chaim Ber,” he offers, though Reb Nochem wouldn’t have known his father.

His father had kept himself there, just there. From up on the porch, Ahrele can form a circle with his thumb and forefinger, squint, and fit the whole area inside. He feels an uncanny anger. Der Eibeshter put them there and they’d been content to stay. He couldn’t do it, what if he needed more?

He fingers the potpourri sachet from Mamme in his pocket. “Give it to the woman,” she’d said. But what did she know? These people’s porches burgeoned with lilies, vivid white and orange, perfuming the air.

Mrs. Miller comes out then and calls them back inside. Dinner time.

She positions Reb Nochem at one end of the table and puts a plate down next to him. She lets it cool on the table while she serves Ahrele and herself.

“It can’t be too hot, it has to be safe, just so,” she says.

Ahrele thinks of the boiling tea and suppresses a laugh.

He downs the soup and she brings the main course out. Meat. Soft, plentiful, meat. Ahrele forces himself to eat slowly.

She talks all the while. Therapy appointments. Chavrusas. Shul. Mealtimes. A day-hab program that would put a nursing home to shame.

She lives for Reb Nochem.

Ahrele nods, writes things down in the gilt-edged diary she gives him.

“Should be good now.” She points at her husband’s plate.

He chops up the plain fare and starts to feed it to Reb Nochem.

“I make something from nothing. There are so many things he can’t eat,” she says.

He wants to bring Reb Nochem into the conversation. Ask him about the program, how the food is. But she’s talking about his medication, when, what, how much.

Ahrele looks from her to Reb Nochem.

She’s living for him, but not with him.

  

The Millers’ children are visiting. Young couples, grandchildren, kids with ruffly dresses, booties, matching yarmulkes. Ahrele’s there too — Yair, the Shabbos aide, hadn’t turned up. He wheels Reb Nochem in and a granddaughter comes over to say Gut Shabbos.

She brings her little son over. “Say Gut Shabbos to Zeidy,” she says.

The boy fidgets and wiggles out of her grasp.

Some more people come over, bend down to his eye level. A young man talks to Reb Nochem slowly and loudly like a kindergarten morah.

“Who are you?” Reb Nochem asks his grandson, and Ahrele wants to applaud. Good one, Reb Nochem, if he talks to you like he doesn’t know who you are, let him have it.

“I’m Zev, remember.”

Reb Nochem makes a face. “Okay, Zev, good.”

The women sit on the ottoman and laugh and schmooze and eat mini cakes from a gold serving platter, with tiny forks and patterned napkins. Children bounce around. Reb Nochem looks on.

Ahrele wonders what their relationship used to be like, but it’s not like he can ask anyone. He finds a magazine lying around and starts to peruse it, keeping half an eye on the old man.

Surely they respected him, he’s the patriarch of the family. Probably paying all their rents, too.

He thinks of Zeide, half-prone on the old recliner on the last Pesach of his life. Still then, they’d slipped the string off the matzah boxes and one of his sisters went over to play cat’s cradle with Zeide. He had the quickest fingers. He could hardly talk but he could manipulate the strings, take over from Mirel. His fingers remembered.

Mamme said it was okay. He didn’t say Torah anymore but he did v’higadeta le’vincha like this.

Ahrele looks at Zev, sitting near Reb Nochem awkwardly, holding a sefer. He wants to share something, doesn’t know how. That’s normal, in a way, Ahrele thinks. When you’re sheltered, when you grow up in a gold cocoon, it’s harder to adjust, to be okay when things weren’t.

Mamme, his sisters, they didn’t flinch as much from illness, from problems. His head hurts suddenly. Mamme’s okayness, isn’t that what makes him mad?

Reb Nochum coughs. One brittle sound, another, then a wracking, heaving attack.

Ahrele fumbles for the oxygen mask.

“Take him away,” Mrs. Miller yells.

  

“Mazel tov, mazel tov. Ruchelle is a kallah.” It’s Shprintza, his oldest sister.

“Ruchelle?”

His younger sister. He’d seen this coming, they’d spoken about it, why should she be held back because he hasn’t figured out what he wants, but he feels a sinking something, and realizes he never really saw it.

“I’m coming right over.”

He hasn’t been home in two weeks and the house looks shabbier than he remembers, different. Voices from the dining room. He pushes the door open and enters. He’s happy for her, really he is. She deserves her happiness. His brother-in-law, Shprintza’s husband, bumps his fist. “Mazel tov, mazel tov.”

Neighbors and cousins. His little nephews. That slip of a man, he must be the chassan.

He pushes through the crowd and into the kitchen. Mamme, Ruchelle.

They don’t see him yet. He stands there, looking at the room with a stranger’s eye. White-grey paint, naked lightbulb, mismatched chairs absorbed by the crowd, black tichels, beaming faces.

He finds his mother. “Mamme, mazel tov.”

She clutches Ruchelle and points in his direction, then her eyes settle on him and they are saying a thousand things.

Her happiness, their happiness, pure simchah. She blinks, and he knows she’s with him, feeling what he’s trying to swallow. I wish this for you too.

Mamme takes a plate from the kitchen cupboard and puts it in a napkin. She and Ruchelle come over to the door between the dining room and kitchen. The women swarm over. A huddle of tichels, dark and flowered and trimmed in gold. All of the women that Mamme speaks to, maybe the whole neighborhood, stuffed and smiling behind the door.

The Rav starts to speak. Ahrele breathes in sweat and schnapps and herring and the rose sachets being passed along, Shprintza and Mirel pressing them into the hands of the other women.

He stands on his tiptoes so he can see over the head of the small chassan. The plate shatters. He closes his eyes and when he looks up, he can see Mamme again.

“Daven, Ahrele,” she whispers.

Not a hint of pity. It isn’t her way. She’s never pitied herself, and she could’ve — oh, how she could’ve.

He makes an expression — longing, impassiveness, he’s not sure what — then Mamme’s there, standing near him, talking to him, while the crowd swells about them. “Daven for direction, for this. You get what you get and you make the best of where you’re at. But you ask, of course you ask, and you open yourself up to the way Hashem wants to give it to you…”

  

He comes back to the Millers after Shabbos, and the change settles on him like dust you can’t see but is gritty on your tongue. Lilies on the breakfront, throw pillows set just so, but he’s not fooled a minute.

Mrs. Miller walks towards him. “Another attack on Shabbos. They found a tumor but they can’t do anything, not in this state. A bit of pain relief, whatever, nothing else.”

Ahrele gapes.

And then in the same clipped tone, “Mazel tov to your sister.”

“What?”

“Yeah. Mazel tov. Nice.” Movement of the mouth — a smile? “I didn’t want to disturb. Once we were in the hospital, we didn’t need help. And Yair was there as well.”

“Oh, oh, thank you. I mean… I’m sorry…” He trails a hand through the air, there’s nothing right to say. Nothing to say.

“I guess I’ll go see him.”

“Yeah. I’m going to be in the study, sorting things out. I’m getting started on Pesach cleaning.” She stalks off, all edges and bravado. Let me control what I still can.

Reb Nochem is in the bedroom, chair leaned back all the way. He opens his eyes and tries for a smile.

Ahrele thinks. Talk to him. He can still hear. Tell him anything. About Ruchelle…

“Ahrele?” Mrs. Miller’s in the doorway holding a list. “Can you get some stuff from the store? Sofia’s coming to clean out the study, we’re out of gloves and floor cleaner, and she needs a wood spray. Also, I found so many photo prints all over the study, I need a folder, like this size,” she indicates with her hands. “Oh, you know what else, while you’re out, could you get a pair of tzitzis? I can’t seem to find enough for Nochem. Check the size in the one he’s wearing.”

He looks at her. She stands straight, holding out the list, holding onto it.

A woman skirting an elephant.

He wants to admire it. This doggedness, pushing away, holding onto the corners of control by crossing out to-do lists and filling the house with things. All his life, he’d hated how Mamme went with the flow, looked trouble back in the eye.

But this?

She scrawls on the list. “And paper towels, okay?”

Not okay. Come out of the kitchen and sit with him, feel.

He looks at her; unreadable expression. He has nothing to lose.

“You know,” he says, “Reb Nochem told me, before…” He clears his throat, letting the silence pass for words. “He once said that he’d always wanted to wear techeiles in his tzitzis….”

Her brow puckers. “Yes, I know, but he didn’t do it because he didn’t want to be seen as strange, radical.”

“No one’s going to think he’s strange now. Should we ask him?”

She sighs, “My sons won’t like it, my grandsons… Can you just get the stuff, I’m in the middle of sorting things out?”

  

He scouts the cleaning aisle for wood spray. He sees window spray, leather spray, so many specialty sprays but none for wood. He’d have to ask someone; Mrs. Miller wants what she wants. He sighs. She’s hiding out in the study, head in the bookshelves, photographs, polishing her castle, while inside it’s going to pieces. He shakes his head. It’s easy to see the way other people got it wrong, but it’s not fair. And he dare not judge a woman brought to her knees by illness.

The guy in the store shows him a brown bottle. He picks out the other things. The tzitzis from the Judaica section, a regular pair.

He stands in line, fingering her credit card. She should speak to Mamme, he thinks inanely.

As if she’d take it from the little Meah Shearim lady.

He comes back to the house and unpacks the bags. From the windows, the late afternoon sun casts pink rectangles on the parquet, beckons him back out. “Can I take Reb Nochem out?”

“Yeah, it’s four o’clock. Of course you should, like always.”

Because nothing’s changed.

He bundles the weakened man into his jacket. He pokes his head into the study. “Mrs. Miller, do you want to come along for the walk?”

She looks up from the photographs. Blinks at the change in the script. Looks down again.

“No, I have things to do,” she says.

In the mirror of the elevator, he sees that Reb Nochem’s eyes are closed.

He gulps, wheels the man out of the building, across the street to a small park. Tired geraniums, benches with dedication plaques to people’s loved ones. He sits down on the bench of ha’ishah hatzadikah Yael Berman. It’s the last one in the row, still warm and sun drenched, not yet in the long shadow of the buildings. She must have loved sitting in the sun back in — he looks at the plaque — 1978.

Reb Nochem opens his eyes. “Nu, nu?”

Ahrele knows what he’s asking. How are you, how are things?

He starts to talk. “My sister just got engaged, her name is Ruchelle. She’s just a year younger than me. Ahh, the things we did together. The tricks we played on our older sisters, Shprintza and Chaya. So it’s not that I’m upset she went first. Even if you know, people talk. By us,” he indicates with his head, leftward, towards Meah Shearim, “birth order is important. But that’s not the thing. It’s that Ruchelle knows what she wants, and now she found someone who shares her vision. Simple vision, maybe, but you know, wholesome. She’s happy. She’s my younger sister and she knows. And, and… what can I say, it’s given me a jolt. If she’s settling down, it’s kind of mechayev me to… to figure myself out.”

“Hmm,” is all the old man says, but Ahrele feels his presence in the moment, feels heard.

The shadows grow, drape their bench, and Reb Nochem shivers.

They walk back to the building and sit down right outside it.

Ahrele talks on while the old man listens and murmurs.

He is aware suddenly of Mrs. Miller looking on. She’s holding a package, must have come down for the delivery guy. In a minute she’s going to call them to dinner. A word, and an order, and another thing she’s doing, doing, doing. But for now, she’s just watching them converse, looking at Reb Nochem, at the back of his head, the strangest expression on her face.

  

He dreams of Zeide, walking in a drifting snow in Jerusalem. He treads lightly through the snow in his old shoes, his footsteps getting swallowed as streets open before him. He follows a clear path onwards; he sails through snow.

Ahrele wakes up, still seeing Zeide, dreamlike, his clarity, his ease. His ease of living, of passing on into the night.

He stumbles out of bed, possessed by an urge to check on Reb Nochem. In the next room, the older man is translucent in sleep. Breathing, breathing. The thought creeps in like an imposter: What if he dies?

For one second, an avalanche of questions: What would Ahrele do? Where would he go? Could he ever go back to the way things were? And from there?

Enough. He falls back into his bed, closes his eyes and sees Zeide again, the lightest tread through snow. And he knows that he doesn’t need to know all those answers now. Just live out this night, tomorrow, moment by moment. He is here, thousands of events conspired to put him, Zeide’s grandson, Mamme’s son, in this home, the chance of it as tenuous as a paper notice flapping in the breeze.

He has this sense of sand, of time slipping through the waist of an hourglass. Just before he sleeps again, he knows what he needs to do.

  

Four o’clock the next day, he arranges for his phone to ring. He says something into it and then turns to Mrs. Miller. “I’m sorry, something came up. I have to go.”

“But Ahrele, it’s time for Nochem’s walk,” she says, dismayed, like he expected her to be.

He’s ready. “My sister…” he says, “the kallah…” There’s always this urgency surrounding kallahs, she’d have to let him off the hook. “I’ll be back later,” he says.

She nods slowly.

“He shouldn’t miss his walk, though,” he throws over his shoulder, trying for casual. He doesn’t look back to see her reaction.

  

Next morning Ahrele’s out on the Millers’ porch, and he calls Zev, the grandson. “What’s his favorite place, your grandfather?”

“Hmm,” Zev says.

Ahrele waits for a response. The lilies bob in the breeze, Yerushalayim lies before him in all its hilly splendor. This eighth-floor porch, it’s his favorite place. He makes out Batei Ungarin in the distance and swallows.

“Well, I thought maybe the shul,” Zev is saying, “but no, it must be the Kosel. You know how much wanted to come here all his life….”

“I thought so, I just wanted to be sure.”

He’s half smug, the beginnings of a plan forming in his mind, and then the phone rings and he vaguely recognizes the number on the screen, but he doesn’t understand why it stirs something disorienting inside him.

He clutches the railing and answers.

“Ah, Reb Ahron, nu, voz machstu? S’iz Reb Zanvil, der tatte’s chaver.”

Reb Zanvil. Tatte’s friend. Of course, he always introduces himself like that. Were he and Tatte even all that close? But it’s what he says every time. He’s a shadchan.

“I have a gedank, an idea — a girl fun unzere, from ours, but a bit different.”

“What do you mean?”

“You know, she looks a bit more… She’s learning to become a… something, ich veis nisht punkt vos. Listen, there was a levayah yesterday. I was on Har Hazeisim and I went over to your father’s grave, I promised him I was going to help you.”

He wants to say yes, whatever, let me just meet her and see. Wants to give in to the pathos, let the shadchan thinks he’s pushed the right buttons by invoking his father.

Once he would have rushed to consider someone just a bit different; there wasn’t enough difference in the narrow streets, he thought. He looks back at the glass porch doors, thinks of the Millers. Thinks of Mamme, Shprintza, Chaya, and Ruchelle.

Who is he? Would he even figure that out once he stood under the chuppah? Had his classmates defined themselves by the choices they made at nineteen-and-a-half, by continuing along the path that was practically paved for them?

Maybe they are only now defining themselves by some small choice they’re making, to look or not to look, to listen, to buy….

Jerusalem falls eight floors before him, and rises again in the distance. We are a thousand tiny choices. He makes just one.

“Nu, shkoyach,” he says, “let me talk to my mother.”

  

“Can you help me open the Pesach kitchen?” Mrs. Miller asks him the next week.

Your husband is dying. Someone else will cook the meals.

He shrugs, starts to hoist the planks of wood covering the Pesach kitchen.

Halfway through, he checks on Reb Nochem. He’s sleeping, at peace in his chair.

Ahrele’s eyes blur. He notices a strand of teal suddenly in Reb Nochem’s tzitzis. When did this happen? Who bought it for him? The sight of that string, stubbornly, beautifully blue, like Reb Nochem wanted — it gives him heart.

Surely, it’s her. She’s thawing despite herself.

He walks back into the kitchen. Mrs. Miller’s there, taking something down from a shelf.

He has to try.

“It’s the first week of Adar,” he clears his throat. “You’re starting to cook already?”

“Might as well,” she says, “The crowds, you know. And what else can I do?”

He makes a show of checking his watch. Five to four. “Mrs. Miller, why not come on a walk. A trip.”

“But Nochem’s sleeping.”

“So we’ll wake him up. He needs this.”

You need this.

Slowly she removes her plastic gloves.

He gets a blanket for Reb Nochem, she gets her coat. Outside, a large taxi waits. He motions to the driver and wheels Reb Nochem right into the wheelchair-accessible vehicle.

“Wait. Where are we going?” Mrs. Miller protests.

“Just get in. You’ll see.”

She sits stiffly, silently, for the fifteen-minute drive, and Ahrele bites his lips. He’s been too impetuous, he’s going to regret this. But when they stop at the Kosel, and Reb Nochem blinks in the brightness, both of them take in his face; surprise, sun in his eyes.

“Twenty minutes,” she says hoarsely, and they diverge, to pray.

What does a dying man ask for? What about Mrs. Miller, of the rigid, unyielding shoulders, on the other side?

Ahrele can’t conjure a single word. Instead he looks at Reb Nochem, and Mamme’s voice comes to him all the way from Batei Ungarin, whispering through the stones. You ask, of course you ask, and you open yourself up to how Hashem wants to give it to you.

If He wanted to give the Millers connection like this…

His own requests bubble twenty thousand leagues below, but today is about an ailing man, useless legs pressed against stone, and his wife of decades, and a chance, maybe their last.

They meet Mrs. Miller sitting on a stoop in the Kosel Plaza. Ahrele positions the wheelchair near her, and quick as a wink, disappears into the crowd.

  

He is in shul. Shabbos is just out, and some of the men are still sitting over Shalosh Seudos. A young kid summons Ahrele to the pay phone. It’s Yair, the other aide. Baruch Dayan Ha’Emes.

He leaves the phone jangling from the cord, runs out of shul, satin bekitshe flapping behind him, a cold, bitter cold, stealing in.

He pauses at the corner for a moment. He should go up, run through the streets and to the Millers. But he can’t.

Instead, he flies home. Sits on a chair, half expecting, wanting it, to fall.

Is the levayah now? Could they be walking Reb Nochem away, now, as he sits here?

He should go. Just get himself up and go.

Mamme comes in and sits. She knows.

“They called on your cell phone. They called our house phone. They must have got you in shul.”

She searches his face. “You’ve done good, Ahrele,” she says.

He hasn’t told her all that much about Reb Nochem and Mrs. Miller. But if anyone can tell he’d changed, focused, cared, it’s Mamme.

Because it was her way. Not to flinch, but to face. And to be okay with what He thought was good. Once, he’d wanted her to storm and rail and cut through boulders like a waterfall; now he feels her calmness, quiet, settle over the table, and he thinks, This is the way.

Not to accept is to fight and shut yourself away from what Hashem wanted to give. But he had been able to, enough to do something real, lasting for the Millers. And Mrs. Miller, in the last minute, she’d allowed herself to accept, too. He recalls her sitting hunched on a stoop in the Kosel Plaza, and how he’d looked back at them — her rounded shoulders, arm over the wheelchair.

She would hear Mamme out now.

“Come with me, Mamme,” he says.

She rummages in thecupboard. He smells a hint of roses and lemon. She’s prepping a few potpourri bags, and for a second he thinks, how primitive, naive, how will Mrs Miller take this?

Outside, he hails a taxi and they get in. They pass Geula quickly, they are in Americayim land, and people, stores, and buildings blur.

Where you think you want to be, he can hear his mother saying, eons ago when he was packing his bags. But she’s sitting in the car, hasn’t said anything, mouth a thoughtful line.

He’ll take her inside to the Millers, pack his bags again — and won’t she say something different?

They come to the building and stand in the crowded, too-bright hallway.

He recognizes Zev, there’s Reb Nochem’s son, there’s Yair. Somewhere beyond, he glimpses Mrs. Miller. His mother steps beside him. She’s never been here, doesn’t come to this part of town, never met Mrs. Miller, but just then he can think of no one better than Mamme, with her navy tichel and shopping bag of potpourri, to be here. He hesitates a fraction of a second in the doorway, then leads his mother inside. 

(Originally featured in Mishpacha, Issue 854)

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