| Calligraphy: Succos 5784 |

The Doll

Sima bristles. You would think she was the one agitating her mother. She, who had taken the entire burden of care on her shoulders. Not that she’d had the choice

There are patches of thin ice glistening in the sun, and Sima carefully maneuvers the wheelchair down the ramp and onto the frozen walkway. She avoids the bump where a tree root has cracked the pavement and ruined the smooth path. It’s nothing really, just a literal bump in the road, but for a wheelchair it could be dangerous.

She locks the wheelchair and leans forward to adjust her mother’s scarf.

“Nem megyek!” Her mother screams for the hundredth time that morning, as she starts tearing at her neatly combed sheitel.I’m not going! I’m not going.”

Sima grabs the thin wrists. “Mommy, Anyuka,” she soothes. “It’s okay. We’re going to a good place.”

“Nem megyek!” Mommy starts up again as soon as she hears the word “going.”

“Okay, Anyuka, we’re not going,” Sima yells. At least no one can hear her mother’s shouts over the wind.

The door slams, and Henny exits the house with the suitcase. Grasping the handlebars of the wheelchair with frozen fingers, Sima observes her daughter carelessly push the suitcase, watches as Henny almost topples over the bump on the path. The bump has been there for at least a year. Why can’t she look?

Henny’s short jacket is layered on top of a teal hoodie with the hood sticking out. With the next gust of wind, Henny grabs the hood and pulls it over her forehead, allowing the suitcase to slide toward Sima.

“When’s Tatty coming?” Henny asks as she grabs the suitcase again. “Brr… it’s like Siberia out here!”

“He should be here any minute. And it’s not Siberia. Don’t exaggerate.”

Henny clamps her mouth shut.

And take off that ridiculous hood! Sima wants to add. Instead, she fishes for her phone. If Nechemia takes any longer, Mommy will catch a cold, Siberia or not.

Before she can actually dial, Nechemia pulls up. He activates the ramp of the minivan, and it rolls out smoothly.

They’d invested so much in this ramp, and after all that they hadn’t used it nearly as much as Sima had hoped. Mommy hated leaving the house, hated being locked in the wheelchair, and every appointment had been a major ordeal. But Sima couldn’t allow Mommy to walk outside on the uneven pavement.

She quickly wheels the chair up the ramp, secures it with the seatbelts, and adjusts the heat.

Henny helps with the luggage and looks uncertainly at Sima.

“Come with us, Henny,” Nechemia comes to the rescue. “We’ll need your help.”

Sima sits down next to her mother, and Henny takes the front passenger seat.

“All done?” Nechemia’s voice is quiet, tender.

Sima gives a rare, deep sigh and presses the button to close the car door.

“We’re ready,” she says stoically. Henny turns to look at her.

Nechemia adjusts his seatbelt. “Boy is it cold out there! Mamash like Siberia!”

Henny’s eyes gleam.

“Nem megyek,” Mommy starts up again. Hová visznek minket — where are they taking us?”

“We’re going to the circus,” Nechemia says smoothly.

“Jönnek! They’re coming! she screams louder.

Nechemia presses on the gas.

* * *

Sima can’t believe it’s still Sunday.

But she’s grateful it’s still Sunday. There is so much that has to happen before Monday.

Finally, finally her mother’s breath had slowed and she’d drifted off to sleep, and Sima was able to leave Pine Gardens.

The bed seemed comfortable enough — memory foam and all — but her mother hadn’t been calm enough to enjoy it. Wonderful as Pine Gardens had seemed, it still wasn’t Mommy’s home.

As the car turns onto her block, Sima’s ears still ring from her mother’s shouts, and her head swims from the to-do list in her brain. Mrs. Pilchik needs a substitute for tomorrow, and she has to return Mrs. Rubinstein’s call about her daughter’s frequent lateness.

She thanks the driver and starts up the path to her front door. Or, at least she tries to. The icy patches from the morning are still there, and once again, Sima finds herself vulnerable and off-balance.

She turns the key slowly. Only the thought of coffee prods her. On the little windowsill in the foyer, she spots her mother’s spare glasses case; the kitchen counter still has a bowl of some now-black avocado mush from breakfast, and the pillbox stands on the corner of the counter.

Signs and smells of Mommy are all over the house. Only Mommy isn’t.

Sima won’t sigh. One sigh is enough for the day.

But she finds herself sighing anyway. Henny’s been back for a while already; she should have straightened up the house. Instead, her briefcase is open on the dining room floor, her sweatshirt a heap on the bottom step — because why else did the house have floors and a staircase if not to hold all of Henny’s stuff?

Sima absently picks up items, only to put them right back down. She should change into a snood and have her coffee before she tries tackling Bnos Shifra issues.

The vanity door is open and Henny is ironing her hair while talking to someone on speakerphone.

“It’s so weird without Babi here. The house wasn’t this quiet in a year!” Henny says.

“Yeah, and how’s Mommy taking it?”

“Mommy’s not home yet.”

“Wow! That’s a long time! How was it at the nursing home?” Sima hears Chaya’la, her older daughter, through the speakerphone. Her baby is crying in the background, and Chaya’la soothes him with many kisses.

Maybe if she wouldn’t kiss him that much, he’d actually go to sleep.

“You know Mommy,” Henny says. “Did what she had to. Yelled at me for being dramatic.

Sima peeks through the door and sees Henny’s back.

“Mommy just organized Babi’s stuff, bossed the nurses around.” Henny’s voice is accusing. “That’s when I called Tatty to pick me up. I couldn’t watch Babi. She was running around the room. They had to call two nurses to keep her down.” Now Henny is sobbing. “She was speaking Hungarian and yelling….”

“Oish!” Chaya’la sympathizes, excessively.

Sima bristles. You would think she was the one agitating her mother. She, who had taken the entire burden of care on her shoulders. Not that she’d had the choice. Her one third cousin on her father’s side wasn’t much of a help.

“The worst part is,” Henny raises her voice to a near shout, “it doesn’t even seem like Mommy cares all that much. She just left her there and ignored the screaming.”

“What did you want her to do?” Chaya’la asks. Sima relaxes. Chaya’la gets her.

“I don’t know! Maybe calm her down?Henny drops the hot iron and sits down on the floor.

Chaya’la is quiet. Through the crack, Sima sees Henny pick up the iron again and re-iron the same strands, surely burning them.

“Henny, you know it’s impossible to calm Babi when she’s like that. Should I remind you that’s the exact reason she can’t live in the house anymore?”

“Whatever,” Henny says quietly. “Mommy is Mommy.”

Chaya’la doesn’t contradict her.

Mommy is Mommy. Resigned to the awful fact that she, Sima, is unfortunately her mother. The wicked witch ruining Henny’s life by making her pick up her stuff and dress like a normal human being.

Do they even know how she had to claw her way to build this home? To raise them all without the support of a sister, of a brother? With only the shadows her mother lived with?

She has every right to complain about her childhood, and she never dared think such thoughts about her mother. Let alone say them aloud. On speakerphone.

* * *

It looks like kindergarten moved into a hotel.

Ornate, square tables and luxurious chairs are neatly arranged in the dining room. Soft music plays in the background, and along the wall there’s a complete spread, set up buffet-style. And are those wine glasses next to the regular ones? Sima surveys the crowd and wonders who here still appreciates wine.

She breathes deeply and is hit by the smell of pureed apples and sanitizer. She takes in the elegance abutting the bibs, mush, and applesauce.

Is there even one resident here with teeth strong enough to chew those sourdough baguettes? She finds it hard to chew sourdough with a real set of teeth.

Sima heads over to the corner. Her mother is wearing a white tichel and her Shabbos robe.

It is Sunday.

Addie pats Mommy’s back. The aide — her nametag says “Addison” but she’d introduced herself last week as Addie — has startlingly compassionate blue eyes and a matching pair of sapphire earrings. “Now, now, Mrs. Gorelick,” she says kindly to Mommy, “you’ll light the candles soon. Shabbos is not for another couple of hours.”

Since Sima met Addie, she’s been wondering if she’s Jewish or simply exposed to Judaism because of her patients. Either way, Sima grudgingly admits, she’s doing an incredible job with Mommy.

Addie throws in just the right amount of Hungarian to calm her mother. She definitely has a better grasp of the language than Sima does.

“Hi, Addie.”

She feels unsettled being the visitor.

“Oh, Mrs. Teischer, come sit with us.”

Addie pulls up a chair. Sima lowers herself stiffly.

There’s another woman sitting at the next table. Her hands are spotted and gnarled, and she is murmuring under her breath without letup.

She keeps checking her lap and smiling, revealing a pair of ill-fitting dentures. She is obviously not fully aware of her surroundings, yet she seems content. Is that applesauce she’s dropping on her lap? Sima wants to get up and have a closer look.

Suddenly, the woman pulls a baby — a newborn — from under her lap and cradles it lovingly. Sima gasps. She looks on in wonder as the woman brings the baby’s face to her lips for a kiss. But something is off. The baby is dangling at an impossible angle.

“Watch out!” Sima screams, involuntarily. She pushes her chair back, ready to run.

Addie and the other woman’s aide jump up. “What happened? Did someone choke?” Addie is standing next to her.

“N-n-o,” she says, “Look at that lady, she’s holding a baby with one hand.” She points at the woman.

Addie’s eyes crinkle. “Oh, Mrs. Eaglestein? It’s her doll.

A doll?

Sima laughs self-consciously.

“Don’t worry about it. It’s meant to look like the real thing,” Addie says. “Therapists use it with patients suffering from dementia.” Sima is still staring. “It helps them go back in time. Makes them feel like the caregiver, or reminds them of when they had babies. Many patients become happier. More cooperative.”

Sima cranes her neck to get a better view.

“Go get a better look,” Addie says. She walks with her to the next table. “Maybe it’s not a bad idea to try it with your mother.”

“My mother?” Sima shakes her head. “Dolls?”

You want to play with dolls?! When I was your age I took care of the entire family….

“She barely let me play with dolls. She thought it was too childish.” Sima shakes her head again.

Addie just nods, and Sima knows she had spoken too much.

It’s quiet as Addie gently nudges some pureed broccoli into her mother’s mouth. “Your mother is a strong woman,” she says.

Sima nods again. “Yes.” Her hands itch to do the feeding.

“I admire every Holocaust survivor I work with,” Addie says. “Each one is a real hero, especially those who raised families.”

“It’s just me.”

Sima turns to her mother. She truly was a heroine. Sometimes, it was hard for her to see past the Alzheimer’s, past the angry woman sitting across from her. And past the way that angry woman had raised her only child.

“No such thing as just you. It means she married and started again. And you have a large family, I remember. That sweet girl last week.”

Sima allows herself to relax. “True.”

“What do you do?” Addie asks.

“I’m a principal in a girl’s elementary school.” She automatically straightens.

Addie whistles admiringly. “Strong women make strong kids,” she says.

Sima’s cheeks warm.

Addie takes a napkin and gently wipes her mother’s lips. Mommy doesn’t protest.

“Your mother is done here,” Addie says. Sima looks at the empty bowl admiringly.

Addie takes her mother’s hand and says, “Let’s get back to the room and get ready for Shabbos.”

“It’s Shabbos today?” her mother asks bewildered. “This lady here isn’t Shabbosdig.” She points accusingly at Sima.

Sima inhales.

Addie looks her mother in the eye and says, “Of course she is. Look how pretty her jacket is.” Just like that, her mother turns and takes Addie’s hand.

She follows them. The woman at the next table is wiping the doll’s face. There is tenderness and coherence in her movements. Nothing like the rambling woman with dementia.

“Uh, Addie, where can I pick up such a doll?”

“You can ask the OT. But I’m pretty sure Amazon sells them.”

* * *

Sima peeks into each classroom window one more time before heading to her office. She stops at the fifth-grade door and opens it to announce her presence.

“Chava, please clear your desk,” she says, before instructing Sheva to pick up every last tissue from the floor. Then Sima stares down each girl with an unspoken warning to obey the substitute today.

She waits an extra few seconds and then gently closes the door behind her and strides to her office, her pumps clicking on the clean floors. Sima’s shoulders relax with the feeling of control — until she thinks of Henny. The one person in her life she can’t whip into shape.

She locks her door and sits down in front of the computer, stares blankly the screen. She is as tech savvy as a dust mite. She should ask Nechemia for help. Or her secretary. But she finds Amazon easily enough and types in the word: Dolls. The page loads quickly. There’s one of those delicate porcelain dolls she’d so desperately wanted as a child.

She tries again: Large doll. The screen fills with large dolls. But nothing as lifelike as that doll she’d seen at the facility.

She finally enters: Alzheimer’s therapy doll.

That does it. The page fills with lifelike dolls. Rows upon rows of little babies.

Sima savors every move of the mouse’s wheel as she remembers staring longingly into the small window of Mechel’s toy store. She passed it every day as a young child on the way home from school, the large, sloppy slabs of concrete carrying her to all the way to Roebling. Every day she peeked through the open door to the far corner of the store, where there were boxes and boxes of dolls.

One day, the kindly, bearded man asked her if she needed help. She shook her head sadly and said plainly, “My mother doesn’t let me play with dolls.” He gave her a lollipop instead.

But now, sitting in her office, principal of an entire school, she is back at Mechel’s, scrolling up and down and salivating as the images of dolls load on her computer screen.

Which one to choose? She recognizes the dark-haired one from Mrs. Eaglestein.

She fingers her sheitel. Auburn. The baby will be auburn. With hair. It will be a girl. She carefully analyzes each doll until she sees it. Not an exact replica of what she looked like as a baby, but similar enough. She clicks on the listing: Aori lifelike baby dolls 22-inch baby soft body realistic newborn baby dolls real life baby doll sleeping girl.

Auburn wisps peek from a little headband. The eyes are tightly closed and the lips puckered. She gently clicks on the item. It opens to reveal the doll in multiple positions. In some images she has the pacifier and bottle, and in some she just sleeps contentedly.

Sima clicks on the little eyelet bonnet they have listed as an add-on and quickly proceeds to the cart.

At $60 including the hat, it is a reasonable risk. Her spine tingles.

* * *

Nechemia’s belly laugh and Henny’s giggles greet her as she enters the house after a long day at school.

Those two are up to something. That something never includes her. Why does it feel like her family is always conspiring against her? She carefully walks to the kitchen, to the source of the laughter.

She is right, as usual.

Nechemia is rocking the infant seat they’d used for Henny. Where in the world had he unearthed the old blanket her mother had crocheted? She stares at the baby inside. She knows this baby. Auburn wisps, a little magnetic pacifier.

Her doll.

So they opened the package before she even got home from school.

She is tired of always being the party pooper, so she lets them laugh another minute. Her husband tickles the baby under the chin.

It isn’t funny. The baby doesn’t laugh.

“It’s my doll,” Sima says.

“Oh! We were wondering who ordered it. Why didn’t you ever tell me you wanted one? You know, it’s probably cheaper than the necklace I bought you for our anniversary,” Nechemia jokes.

“No,” she clarifies. “It’s for my mother.”

“Babi?” Henny raises a dramatic eyebrow. “A doll?” Under her breath, she mutters, “Good joke. Babi barely let me play with dolls.”

Sima ignores the comment. “It’s a therapy doll. People with Alzheimer’s think it’s a real baby. It helps them feel productive, like they’re caring for a real baby.”

“It’s adorable!” Henny gushes. “It looks so real!” She takes her father’s lead and coos at the doll.

“Put it back in the box,” Sima says sharply. “You are too old to play with dolls.” Sometimes, she feels her mother stuck in her throat.

“Babi’s older,” Henny says, wounded.

“Henny,” Nechemia says warningly. Henny glares at both of them and leaves the kitchen, taking all the laughter along with her. The room suddenly feels stuffy.

Nechemia’s eyes follow Henny’s back sadly. So Sima is the party pooper again. What is it about her and her mezhinka? Henny makes her feel very, very old.

She takes the box to her room and locks the door. She picks up the doll and touches its cheeks. Her fingers tingle, almost like when she’d held her babies for the first time.

* * *

Her mother’s room in Pine Gardens is empty. She adjusts the quilt and organizes the closet quickly. She’ll have to show Addie how her mother likes her sweaters folded. She places the doll on top of the dresser and goes to search for her mother and Addie in the recreation room.

Addie is gently guiding her mother through the activity. The same fingers that had rolled strudel dough long and thin enough to cover the dining room table are now busy with lanyard. The same fingers that had expertly piled zserbo cake oozing with chocolate are now beading Fruity Wheels.

Her mother doesn’t acknowledge Sima’s presence. She ignores her in favor of the colorful cereal. Sima mechanically adjusts the handlebars of the wheelchair and nods at Addie.

“What’s on the schedule after this?” she asks. Were they going to learn how to pile pegs?

“Your mother usually takes a nap,” Addie glances at her watch. “Shouldn’t be more than another ten minutes.”

Sima taps her foot nervously. She’d been edgy ever since she’d ordered the doll.

She scans the room. Sure enough, Mrs. Eaglestein’s doll is right there with her. She is draping her newly-beaded necklace over the doll’s neck.

Sima turns to Addie. “The doll is on the dresser.”

Addie nods. “I hope she’s not too tired. You know how she is when she gets overwhelmed.”

They reach the room. Then, she and Addie watch as her mother surveys the room as if it is the first time she sees it.

Her mother’s eyes dart to the top of the dresser.

Soft auburn wisps. A little eyelet bonnet tied at the deep fold in the newborn’s neck.

She knows this baby from somewhere… somewhere….


It must be Simku.

“Simku?” her mother says wonderingly.

It’s as if the very room stops breathing.

Her mother is talking to her.

Sima hands her the doll in slow motion and watches her mother stare at the eyes.

The kutchenyu is perfectly jelly-like. Soft flakes of paprika and half circles of onions lie trapped in the hardened fish sauce. A fat roll of gefilte fish fills up half the pot, and a long carrot lies neatly at the side waiting to be sliced. See? A fish-head could make a perfect kutchenyu, Anyu had said. No need to waste money on a real slice of fish.

And the gefilte fish? A bit more matzah meal, a few more eggs, and the fish could be stretched to fill the family. Without Tatte, who’d been taken to the Munkatabor labor battalions four months before, Shabbos didn’t feel too Shabbosdig anyway.

Baby Simku lies in her cradle ensconced in the neatly embroidered blanket. Anyu knows how to make her baby look like a princess with a few stitches of this and that.

Frimchu takes the knife to start slicing the fish when she hears the coughing start again. Her mama is resting upstairs. She’d been coughing all week, and Frimchu knows that Anyu is scared. But what is she to do — call the doctor? The Jewish doctors had all been taken to the army to treat the Hungarian soldiers. And the hospital? Not a place for a Jewish mother with a newborn.

There’s no time for worrying, though, the children are hungry; she slices the fish and serves them. Mendel eats hungrily, but Tzirel refuses to take a bite without Anyu at the table beside them.

Simku lets out an angry, hungry wail. Frimchu rushes to the bassinet. She gently lifts the baby and heads up the stairs to Anyu.

Cough. Cough. Cough. Her mother can barely catch her breath. Frimchu feels like crying at the sound, but she must not cry today because today is Shabbos.

“Anyu,” she asks, “Anyu, what can I do for you?”

Anyu shakes her head softly, taking the baby from her with weak, thin hands. “Nothing, you’re doing enough. Just keep taking care of the children. Watch over them. Be strong!”

Take care of the children. Watch over them and be strong.

She looks at Simku, eating hungrily, and she takes strength from her soft cheeks.

“Simku?” she now says quietly as she cradles the baby in her arms. “Simku?”

“Is Sima and Simku the same name?” Addie asks.

Sima nods. But her mother had never called her Simku.

“Erős leszek, I’ll be strong,” her mother whispers.

* * *

When Sima visits the next day, Addie is standing in the hallway, pacing. She doesn’t ask Sima why she came again.

Addie reports that her mother hasn’t let the doll off her bed. All night, she’d been tossing and turning, her hand searching, searching for the doll.

“Your mother refuses to leave the room,” Addie says. “She yells every time I open the door.”

“Did she say anything?” Sima asks.

“She just keeps on repeating something about being strong. About losing Simku. She also cried so much.” Addie looks into Sima’s eyes. “Maybe the doll is too much for her. She’s obviously reliving a very sad part of her life.”

Sima nods. She’d so wanted her mother to connect to the doll. To her.

She carefully opens the door a crack, just enough to slip in.

It doesn’t work.

“Noooooooooooo!” her mother screams.

She’s holding the doll tightly.

“Frimchu,” Anyu calls faintly. Frimchu tiptoes to her mother’s room. The room is cold although it is April, a week to Pesach. She walks over to the bed, straightens the quilts, and rearranges the items on the little table.

The room smells of illness and neglect. As much as she’s doing, she can never do enough. With Mendel, Tzirel, and the baby under her care, she’s torn to pieces.

And there’s never enough food.

“Yes, Anyuka?” she asks.

“I need you to travel to Budapest. Oma knows what to do for my cough. She has a good syrup.”

Frimchu thinks of the yellow star she will have to wear. She hadn’t gone on the street all week for fear of wearing that star.

“Anyu, if I leave, who will care for the children?” she asks quietly. Her voice comes out meek, like a young child. It’s been two weeks of coughing, and Pesach is only a few days away. Who will care for them? Clean the house?

“It won’t be long. You can be back tomorrow.”

“I’m scared,” she whimpers like the baby.

Anyu packs her papers and between coughs gives her instructions for the train, reassuring her that she’s nice and tall and can pass for 15.

She secretly knows that her dark hair is a giveaway, and the neighbors had called her nose Jewish. It is not safe to travel, to walk, to live.

But it is even more frightening to hear her mother cough.

Anyu weakly comes to the kitchen, wraps a chunk of bread and a few slices of the mandelbroit the neighbor had sent, and urges her to hurry. Frimchu knows there is not much food in the house, but with Pesach coming, she takes the package. It’s chometz and will have to be eaten anyway.

She steals one look at baby Simku in the cradle. Who will care for her and change her diapers if her mother is so weak?

She picks up the baby and cradles her in her hands, wetting Simku’s blanket with her tears.

When Frimchu lays her down again, the baby cries.

Ne sírj, Simku, Don’t cry, Simku.” Mommy’s voice is desperate. She holds the doll and rocks and rocks.

Slowly, her eyelids become heavy. Finally, she falls asleep holding the doll.

“Maybe we should hide it,” Addie whispers to Sima. “She’s sleeping now, and she’ll forget about it as long as it’s not next to her.”

Sima nods wordlessly. Her own eyes are wet. There’s no iron-will strength in her mother’s movements. Nothing of the unshakable, unmovable mother she knows. She doesn’t want to take the doll away. She wants her mother to stay this way — raw, unprotected. But she knows it is selfish. Cruel, even.

Addie gently opens her mother’s fingers to loosen her grip on the doll.

Her mother’s eyes fly open. They are wild. The eyes of a lioness.

She pounces. Her gnarled fingers working feverishly, she reaches Addie’s face and pounces.

“Simku!” she screams.

Addie shields her face with her free hand and returns the doll to her mother.

Sima stands like a statue.

The train station is even more chaotic than yesterday. The mandelbroit is long gone, and now Frimchu has only the strudel Oma packed for her. Another few hours, and she’ll be back home.

Her hands tremble so violently, she can’t even fold them strategically to hide the star, so she leans on the window hoping her seatmate cannot see her fear.

Her grandmother had cried so hard when she’d given her the cough syrup for Anya. She’d kissed her for a long time and held her tightly. Then, she’d hurried her to the station through windy streets and deserted alleys.

The train doors finally close, the steam rises magically. Home. Home. Home. The chugging almost sings. She tries closing her eyes, but she wakes up when some teenagers spit at her.

At the next station, she sees them. Shiny boots and pristine uniform. She knows what she has to do, feign sleep, hide — or she’ll be one of those unlucky woman dragged from their seats.

They carry the breath of death. The doors open, and they’re on the train.

They reach her car.

“Any Jews here?” they ask politely. Their voices are calm and so, so cold.

No one answers. They slowly ask all passengers for their papers.

The woman two rows in front of her looks a bit like Anyu. Same kind mouth, broad shoulders, same beige woolen scarf. Frimchu wants to shriek as they pull her out of her seat, kick her, and drag her off the train.

The teenagers are looking at her. In another few seconds, it will be her turn. Her teeth clatter.

And the train moves on.

She has been spared.

She runs, runs, runs to her house. The prized bottle hidden deep in her pocket. Anyu’s cough, cough, cough echoing in her head, and the soldiers’ kicks churning in her stomach. The streets are loud and quiet at the same time. A cold feeling settles into her stomach.

The door to the house is open. The yawning entrance looks like a large bite.

The house is empty.

“Anyuka! Simku!” she cries.

No one answers. She looks around the dining room.

The chairs are on the floor, the table lies broken, the mahogany breakfront is empty.

All drawers are open.

She holds back another scream.

On the dining room floor, the cradle lies overturned. The wooden spindles are broken and forlorn.

NEM! Anyuka! Simku!”

A single dirty footstep soils the embroidered blanket that had covered her newborn sister yesterday. She stares at the unmistakable imprint of a boot.

“Simku!” she whimpers. “Anyuka!”

Sima is still in her statue-like position as she watches her mother’s eyes roam the room, haunted. Whispering the words again and again, she clutches the doll tightly.

The moans turn to loud sobs and Sima walks to her — holds her hands for the first time ever — and feels her mother go limp in her arms. And although Sima suspects that she isn’t the Simku of her mother’s anguished sobs, she savors every second.

* * *

Was this how Henny felt going to school? Trapped?

Sima dresses tiredly, fighting the weird urge to play hooky and visit her mother instead. The questions burn.

Why had she never asked?

How had she gone through 60 years of her life without finding out about her past?

How had she allowed her mother to reach a state of no return without sharing her story?

It was true that her mother never wanted to share, but maybe if she would’ve asked? She fights the guilt as she brushes her sheitel and heads toward the stairs. All those years, she had just accepted her mother’s ways without question. “No staying out late! No trips with your class! No playing with dolls! No throwing out leftovers!” No. No. No.

So Sima hadn’t stayed out late. She had been the only one who remained home when all her classmates visited Washington, D.C., for their graduation trip. She’d been the only one who was never at weddings past the first dance and the only one who wasn’t allowed to diet in high school.

She enters the kitchen tiredly and watches Henny grab a stirrer, a cover, and a sleeve, fill her cup with a mixture of hazelnut and regular coffee, and add a heaping tablespoon of sugar.

Okay, so she wasn’t old-fashioned enough to demand that Henny drink from a proper mug. But seriously, four disposable items for one cup of coffee. Her daughter was clearly running late for school, so where would she even drink it? Was Henny planning to walk to school while drinking her coffee? Didn’t she know that walking while drinking was dog-like?

“Henny. Coffee isn’t breakfast. And we don’t walk while we drink.”

Henny starts guiltily. She hadn’t noticed Sima enter the kitchen. She fingers the stirrer.

“I’ll drink it on the bus,” Henny tries, but she must know it’s futile — she’s already heading toward the sink to spill the coffee down the drain.

“Never mind,” Sima says. “Sit down, drink it. I’ll drive you to school.”

In the car, they don’t talk. It’s the first time, though, that Sima wants to connect. Wants to ask her daughter what’s on her mind. Before it’s too late.

Too soon, they’re at the high school entrance. Henny mumbles her thanks as she slips out the door. Sima then steers the car toward Bnos Shifra, when suddenly she decides to act upon her morning idea.

She makes a U-turn and heads toward Pine Gardens.

* * *

Sima finds her mother and Addie sitting side by side in the lounge. Her mother, of course, is cradling the doll. The auburn hair is a tangled mess and the bonnet is stained with — is that broccoli mush? One of its eyes is closed, and the other is fully open and searching.

Maybe she can coax her mother into bathing her baby today.

Addie looks up and notices her watching them. She quickly motions for Sima to be quiet and points at a chair positioned back-to-back with her own, so Sima can hear her mother without seeing her or being seen.

She’s not very fluent in Hungarian, but she knows enough to realize that her mother is in some faraway place, and Addie is there with her.

She envies Addie — covets the ease with which this woman connects to her mother. Her mother’s voice is dreamlike, almost young.

“You have to be careful with the children,” her mother tells Addie. “You may never leave them alone. Because then they come and take them away.”

Addie nods. “Yeah, they do.”

Sima swallows the urge to cough, afraid to miss a word.

“What do they do when they come?” Addie asks carefully.

“They take them away! Along with Anyu and Tzirel.” Now her mother starts to sob.

Addie pats her hands. “Don’t cry, don’t cry,” she says soothingly, but her mother is inconsolable.

“The blanket! They step on it and grab Simku,” her mother says. Then she falls quiet.

Sima longs to look at her mother’s eyes and see the story they tell. But she doesn’t dare break the moment.

“She’s gone!” her mother says. And now Sima cannot hold herself back anymore. She turns around and stares in horror as Mommy rips the blanket off her doll and throws it on the floor; she didn’t know Mommy still has such strength in her arms. She then watches her mother stand and stamp on the blanket. Her tichel is askew, almost covering her eyes, and her frail shoulders shake with anger. Her wrinkled face is tear-stained and haggard.

“Simku!” she cries. “I didn’t watch over you! Why did I leave you?” Then Mommy’s sobs turn wild. Sima watches, helpless, as her mother fights the demons in her mind.

Addie pats her again and again, until her sobs finally fade into sniffles.

“Let’s rest now,” Addie suggests gently, linking arms with Mommy and rising.

Sima awkwardly follows them, an unfamiliar feeling snaking its way up her heart.

“Simku, Simku,” her mother whimpers to the dirty, smelly thing in her hand. What does Mommy find in that filthy doll that she can’t find in me?

Sima tries breathing all weird thoughts away.

“It’s normal,” Addie whispers. “The past and present are the same in her mind.”

Sima nods, but the sudden boiling anger at the Simku of her mother’s love overtakes her. The Simku who has stolen her mother’s ability to love her.

The prickle in her eyelids is unexpected. She turns and hurries outside, her anger prodding her on. She avoids the mirrors next to the doors, but not before noticing a pair of hungry eyes staring back at her.

* * *

Sima Teischer, queen of composure, is angry. A rage that makes her dream of breaking plates or throwing shoes, or at least driving her car at 90 mph.

The many therapists who work in her school would classify this anger as “the beginning of the grieving cycle.” And they’d be right. She is grieving. But the worst part is knowing she has no right to be mad. At whom? At a mother who survived the Holocaust? At a mother who lost her childhood? At a mother who had given birth to her and raised her to be a mensch?

So her mother hadn’t hugged her as a child. Tragic. Her mother had given her life!

Somewhere deep inside, she’d known all along that she wasn’t the Simku her mother connected with. Her mother had never even called her Simku. It’s her fault that she let her mind talk her into this scam. But that doesn’t temper the rage.

She storms home from Pine Gardens, a fireball on a mission, and attacks her mother’s room downstairs. It’s time to get rid of all the clutter and turn it back into a suite for her couples so they can visit regularly. She scrubs and declutters and moves the furniture. The room is now sterilized, and Sima is exhausted, but inside she still rages at the knowledge that a little baby who lived 70-something years ago had stolen her mother’s ability to love.

She takes the album she found while cleaning the room and leafs through it again. Pictures of her children’s weddings with Mommy sitting regally in the center. Unsmiling in each one. Two pictures of herself as a child, long auburn hair tightly brushed into rigid pigtails. Then there’s one picture of herself as a baby. The sepia print is old but unmarred by any creases.

Why had she chosen a doll with hair? She looks at the photo again. She was bald as an apple.

Nechemia knocks on the bedroom door.

“Is it Henny?” he asks through the door.

“It’s nothing.”

“Sima?” he asks, and she hears the concern and surprise in his voice.

It’s time to forget this whole sorry morning and become normal again. She has one errand to take care of first. Simku, Sima, whatever it is — her mother needed a new doll instead of the filthy one she’s schlepping around.

This time, she’ll order a bald one. And she’ll make sure that neither Nechemia nor Henny gets hold of it before she does.

* * *

Sima isn’t angry anymore. But when Sunday rolls around, she doesn’t visit Pine Gardens. There’s too much schoolwork before Pesach break, and it would be great to take Henny shopping for Yom Tov.

When she asks Henny if she wants to spend the day together, she’s saddened by the hungry look in her daughter’s eyes. It reminds her of her own last week.

As they finger sweaters in soft spring colors, Sima feels something inside of her settle. She touches the gold buttons on her blazer, and for a wild moment wonders how it would feel like to dress in a casual sweater.

Henny comes out of the dressing room wearing a maxi skirt and bright green top. She looks hideous, and Sima is about to tell her that.

Instead, she looks at her daughter, notices how she nervously pats down her hair, and asks, “Do you like it, Henny?”

Henny nods uncertainly.

“The green looks nice on you,” Sima ekes out.

The words taste funny and fake, but Henny gobbles them up.

“The skirt is nice, too, but they have even nicer ones,” Sima manages. “Let’s get the top, go for some ice cream, and look for a skirt after that.”

Her phone vibrates. She sees Henny’s face close as she mutters, “Another school call.” Sima ignores the phone.

But when it vibrates again, and again, she finally answers. It’s the receptionist at Pine Gardens.

“Your mother developed pneumonia. Can you come here to plan the next step?”

They drop their items and hurry to the car.

* * *

Sima stares worriedly as her mother coughs again and nearly chokes on her phlegm. Her eyes are closed, and her face is red with exertion from coughing.

They are in Pine Gardens’ exam room for a chest x-ray. The room is well-equipped and looks much like the ER, and Sima is grateful they might avoid a trip to the hospital. She turns away as the nurse comes to suction her mother. Finally, her mother’s breathing eases, and her eyes flutter open. She looks around the room.

Her eyes rest on the IV pole beside her and then on Sima.

“Where is my baby?” she asks weakly. “Is she okay?”

Sima frantically checks her mother’s bag, but the doll is not there. The nurse probably left it in her room.

“I want to see the baby,” her mother whispers. “My little baby.”

Sima suddenly remembers that the new doll is in her car, where she’d hidden it from Nechemia. Now is the perfect time to bring it.

“Henny, can you wait with Babi?” she asks, and she hurries out to the car.

Ten minutes later, she returns, panting.

“Babi thinks she’s in the hospital, in the labor ward, I think. All she wants is her baby,” Henny says tersely.

Sima nods and quickly unwraps the package. The bald head is ugly, but she hands it to her mother anyway.

Her mother accepts it happily. She strokes the bald plastic with the hand that doesn’t have the IV.

“Mrs. Gorelick, your baby.”

Frimchu looks around the hospital room. She is sore and in pain.

The nurse hands her a tiny bundle.

Her baby.

But she doesn’t feel. She wants to cry for Anyu who never saw the next generation. She wants to kick in anger, to rage for all the little babies lost.

She holds the baby in her arms and pushes the hat upward.


She feels the first stirrings of longing. She hadn’t felt it at liberation, not even at her wedding.

She tastes mandelbroit and strudel in her mouth. She remembers the ugly footprint on the beautiful blanket.

She will call her new baby Sima. She will instill in her the strength to survive.

“Sima? Sima?”

Sima and Henny bend lower to hear what her mother is saying.

“A babám? my baby?” her mother whispers reverently. She repeats the words again and again.

Henny moves closer to Sima. Sima feels stifled, but she doesn’t move away.

Her mother is still staring at the baby. Who is she seeing? Sima? Simku? Some other baby in her life, a child Sima would never know? Where is she? In the hospital after giving birth? In her home? In the camps?

Sima leans toward her mother and looks into the confused eyes. She suddenly sees her. An elderly, tortured, brave woman who tried her best. She bends down to give her a soft hug. She knows she will never get one in return, but she feels her mother’s love.

Sima then turns to Henny and draws her near. Henny’s head slowly falls forward as Sima wraps her little girl in her arms.


(Originally featured in Mishpacha, Issue 980)

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