By Gina Roitman
“You’re not dead? I’m going to kill you!”
“I’m okay,” I say, but that doesn’t stop my mother from yelling at me.
“Where were you? How do you just disappear? I was almost calling the police . . .” Her face is pale and her eyes bulge like a runaway horse’s. I know there is no point in trying to explain.
“. . . You could have been lying in the road, hit by a car, your leg broken, or kidnapped by a crazy man.” Her voice escalates in direct proportion to her fears.
“You could have been somewhere, all alone . . . Gottinu, what have I done to deserve such a vildeh chayeh?”
I remain very still, being careful not to shift my weight from foot to foot, something that infuriates my mother. I am itching to protest that I am not a wild animal, that I didn’t disappear. I want to say that all I want is to be like the other kids and play with my friends after school. But I don’t say that. Answering back is not allowed. Finally, it is my turn.
“Nothing happened, Mameh. See? I’m okay.”
She looks at me as if she doesn’t recognize me—the oig in her kop, the light of her life, on those days when she loves me. Why, if I’m not hurt, I wonder, does she get madder, as if my being alive and not dead is beside the point?
The tirade is almost over, I know, when my mother lifts her eyes to the ceiling and asks God her favourite question: “I survived Hitler for this?”
The year I am nine, my mother does something I never imagined possible. She disappears.
After breakfast, but before I’m ready to leave for school, she stands at the door, her wiry hair pulled back with bobby pins and meticulously tucked under a small felt hat.
Before she walks out the door, she reminds me again of her instructions.
“Take care of Aaron.”
And then she disappears. For the whole day.
“I need you to take care of Aaron,” is what she said when she first sat me down to explain how things were going to be. Just like Tateh, she was now going to go to work. She was going to work as a seamstress in a dress shop.
“You have to be both sister and mother to your little brother,” she had said.
“But Mameh, I’m only nine.” Why was she doing this? Was I that bad?
“You’re old enough,” she had said, and held out a key looped through a shoestring.
“Listen to me, Rivkeh. If your father and I are going to make something of this bittersweet life, you have to help.”
She placed the key around my neck, held me by the shoulders and drew my face close to hers.
“After you finish school, you will go to pick up Aaron from Adath Israel. And then you will come straight home. Straight home, do you hear me? Aaron has to have something to eat after school. You remember how I told you what the doctor said? Aaron has to eat more than us, so he doesn’t get sick.”
“He’s just as strong as I am,” I protest. “He’s just skinnier, that’s all.”
“No, he’s not strong.. You don’t understand.”
“But what if something happens to me?”
“Nothing will happen to you. Just be careful. Don’t lose the key and bring Aaron home safe. That’s all I ask.”
I try. I manage somehow to be vigilant about retrieving my brother, but I’m not so careful with the key. It keeps disappearing into thin air. I try double-knotting the shoestring. That only works for a week. I try putting the key inside my undershirt. The cold metal on my chest is reassuring. But once it warms up, I forget it’s there. When I get to the apartment door, I am surprised, and then panicked, to find it gone. I try to remember, did I take it off when I was skipping rope? I go back to look. Gone. Over several months, I lose the key with the same regularity as my mother will lose her temper.
“The money I pay to replace that key could put food on the table,” she says over and again, as if we never have enough to eat.
“I have to pee,” Aaron whines, bouncing up and down on his matchstick legs. We are standing at the door of the apartment.
“You want me to be careful, don’t you?”
He nods, yes, but I know he doesn’t get what I mean.
It’s a ritual. First, I have to make scratching noises in the lock with the key, because if a robber or a crazy person is inside, they’ll have time to get out the back door in the kitchen, to hide or run down the fire escape. Then I turn the key and push, holding my breath, bracing for the eerie whoosh that escapes when I open the door.
Aaron’s footsteps echo in the hall as he runs to the bathroom but I wait at the front door, just to be sure. There is no slice of banana cake and a glass of milk waiting for me. No sounds or smells emanating from the kitchen to indicate supper is on the stove. There is only silence, except for the music coming from below.
In the apartment beneath ours, Mrs. Mendel’s piano student is laboring away at the scales. The notes rise up through the floorboards, like a rebuke.
I asked for piano lessons once, but Mameh’s look said it all: “Better ask for the moon.”
The sound of the notes draws me down until my ear is pressed to the ground, listening like Tonto in The Lone Ranger. After a while, my fingers start to fly up and down the worn wood. I could be such a good piano player; I would practice all the time. After a few minutes, I get up off the floor and climb onto the couch, and jump down hard—once, twice, three times. Maybe that will show them.
I hate the piano.
“Tateh,” I ask, “how much do you love me?”
My father lowers the Yiddish newspaper and peers at me over his glasses.
“Too much and not enough,” he says, as he wraps his arms around me.
I bury my face in the safest place I know, my father’s furry chest. It’s Friday night, Shabbat. My father finishes work early, and my mother stops to buy some food on her way home from the dress shop. I take the opportunity to beg my father for a story while Aaron sits at his feet, playing with two old, stuffed socks tied together that he makes believe is a train.
My father reads me a Sholem Aleichem story from the Yiddish newspaper. It’s a story that makes me laugh.
“Did you like that story?” asks Tateh, and gives me another hug.
“I always love your stories. Tell me the one about the how the bear lost his beautiful tail.”
“Ah.” My father’s eyes twinkle with pleasure.
“Did you know that the Russian bear once had a beautiful, bushy tail?” he begins. “But the crafty fox, out of jealousy, talked him into using it to catch fish through a hole in the ice. Can you guess what happened when he tried to pull it out?”
My Tateh’s stories are sweet and funny, not like Mameh’s stories.
My mother tells war stories. Every Shabbat, every Jewish holiday, has two stories, the one about the holiday and the other one about some place my mother can never go back to, or about someone who was there and now is gone. At Passover, my father reads the Haggadah and relates the lengthy story of how the Israelites escaped Pharaoh, until my mother loses patience.
“That was three thousand years ago, and they’re still killing us.”
One Friday afternoon, my mother arrives home, and drops the groceries in the front hall with a thud.
“Rivkeh!” she calls. I hurry to help her put the bags away, but before I can see it coming, her balled fist opens and slaps me hard.
“Mrs. Mendel stopped me as I was coming up the stairs,” she says, looking at my father. He peers at us over his newspaper. “Mrs. Mendel says that her ceiling is coming down. Plaster is falling on the piano keys and her students. She is so upset, she’s going to talk to the landlord next time it happens.”
My hand crawls up my cheek, but I am determined not to cry. I squeeze my eyes shut to hold back the flood. When I open them, it is my mother whose eyes are filled with tears.
“It wasn’t me,” I lie. “It was Aaron. He was practising jumping off an airplane.”
My brother leaps to his feet and denies any fault. Then he starts to cry. I turn to my father, but no words of defense or support can be heard from behind the newspaper.
My mother reaches down to comfort Aaron, who is clinging to her leg. Me, she threatens with the strap, the one that hangs in the broom closet, but I can tell by how low her voice has become that she isn’t going to get it. She stares at me for a long minute, and then turns away. She doesn’t go to the kitchen to put the groceries away. Instead, she heads towards the bedroom. Without turning around, she says, “Go outside, you cholerieh, and take your brother with you. Watch him, you understand?”
I open the apartment door and fly down the stairs with Aaron trailing after me. What am I supposed to understand? All I know is that my mother is always yelling, as if nothing is ever good enough in her life, especially me.
Sitting on the stoop with Aaron, picking at a scab on my knee, I wonder why my mother doesn’t love me. I must be adopted, is the only answer. Aaron looks just like Tateh but I don’t look like either of my parents. Maybe my mother found me and now is sorry that she kept me.
“I’m not really your sister,” I tell Aaron, but when his eyes well up, I punch his bony arm and tell him I was just kidding. He smiles and I hug his bony little body.
The next morning, while Aaron is out for a walk with my father and my mother is in the kitchen, I go to her secret dresser drawer. It’s secret because I’m not supposed to open it. It creaks in protest as I slowly slide it towards me. I slip my hand in and move it past the brassieres and underpants to what lies below. I feel paper and something else, something large and smooth. I pull it all out carefully—a tattered, yellow sheet, its folds worn thin, and an old, navy blue handbag.
I unfold the paper and see, stapled to the sheet, a small photo of my mother and another of me, as a baby. Across the top is written the word Immigration. I have seen this paper before. It’s not what I’m looking for, so I open the leather handbag and all around me, photos come spilling out like dead leaves. I pick one up. It’s a photo of my mother’s sister. Mameh was one of six daughters, but everyone but my mother is dead now. There’s another picture of her cousin, Shamsheh, who lives in Belgium. Some of the photos are familiar, but most are of people I don’t know. One grabs my attention. It’s a photo of my mother—very young, a teenager maybe, leaning on a wooden fence. Standing next to her is a man, looking at her and smiling. It’s a beautiful smile. I put the photo down and go digging deeper in the bottom of the drawer. I find some more papers with writing, but nothing is in English, so I can’t figure out what they say. I was born in Germany. Maybe it’s German. Maybe these are my adoption papers, but how will I ever know if I can’t read them? I put them back in the drawer and, once again, look at the photo of my mother and the boy. He is very handsome. Even his eyes are smiling.
“What are you doing?”
My mother is standing over me, holding the corner of her apron on which she is drying her hands.
“I . . . I was just looking for . . .”
“Looking for what?” My mother’s voice is unusually soft, as if she’s afraid she might wake someone.
“I was looking for a picture of . . . of . . . Bubbeh Rivka.”
“There are no pictures of my mother or of my father. There is nothing left but my memories. But you know that. What mishegas goes on in your little head?”
“I wanted to see if I looked like her,” I half-lie.
My mother’s eyes shift to the photo in my hand. She gently takes it from me and goes ominously silent. I can’t stand her silences.
“Who’s the boy in the picture with you?” I ask.
My mother doesn’t answer.
“Is he one of your cousins who died?”
“No, not a cousin.”
Her eyes are glued to the picture and she has that look, the one she gets when she talks about dead people.
“Not a cousin?” I say, egging her on. But when she doesn’t speak, I ask again, “So who is he?”
“Dovid,” she says, finally. “His name was Dovid. He was . . . uh . . . a boyfriend, my boyfriend.”
“Boyfriend?” How can my mother have had a boyfriend?
“It was a long time ago,” she says, as if reading my mind. “. . . Before the war, when I was young. Dovid was . . .” She shakes her head. “He loved me, and we were going to be married when we saved up enough money.”
“You were going to get married? What about Tateh?”
“I didn’t know Tateh then, not until after the war, Rivkaleh. This was before the war, before the world went crazy. . .” She stops for a long moment, her eyes clouded by memories. “. . . Before everybody died.”
“You didn’t die, Mameh. You’re here.”
I stand up to get closer, to better read what’s written on my mother’s face.
She reaches out and touches my hair; I lean my head into her hand. We stand there for a moment, quiet.
“I’m here, Rivkaleh, because I went away from Chrzanow, but when I came back they were all gone. I looked for them, I waited for them, but they were gone. All my sisters, my parents, everyone I loved . . . killed . . . dead . . .”
My mother’s eyes wander back to the photo in her hand.
“Mameh, what happened to your boyfriend, to . . . to . . .?”
“Dovid? Dovid died, too,” she says. “He died and left me alone.”
“But you said you left . . .”
My mother raises her eyes from the photo, fixing them on me as if I am a window into another world. Her lids flutter for a moment, and then her expression changes, like when a teacher raps your knuckles and makes you sit up straight.
“Dovid was my first love . . . he was not only my boyfriend . . . he was also my husband.”
“Husband? But Tateh is your husband.”
“I told you. Before Tateh. Dovid was my first husband. When Hitler’s army marched on Poland, Dovid and I ran away to the Soviets, to Khazakistan. But Dovid got a sickness. From mosquitoes so big they looked like small birds, he became sick with malaria. And then he died. I wanted to die, too, but God didn’t let me.”
Questions dance in my head, but I know that I have already asked too many. I see it in my mother’s face that has grown pinched and drawn. She tells me to be quiet now; she needs to lie down for a bit.
“Meine nerven,” she says.
I say nothing, but I have so many questions. What does she mean—she wanted to die? If she had died, what about Tateh and Aaron? What about me?
“Mameh, we saw a big dog in the park and he licked me. I’m hungry. Can I have a banana?” Aaron is flushed with excitement and the exertions of a walk in the park with Tateh. My mother emerges from her bedroom and silently makes lunch.
“Kum, kinder,” my father says, “let’s leave your mother alone. I’ll tell you a story about the Golden Fish and the man who asked for too much.”
That night, I wake up from dreams of mosquitoes the size of birds and talking fish. In a panic, I clamber out of bed and stumble towards my chest of drawers. Aaron is asleep in the bed next to mine. In the dark, my eyes can’t find what I’m looking for, so I reach out and, with splayed fingers, skim the top of the dresser. I find the shoestring with the metal key at the end of it.
I climb back into bed and hug the key close to my chest.
Copyright © Gina Roitman 2014
Gina Roitman, a Montreal writer, poet, and editor, is the author of Tell Me a Story, Tell Me the Truth, a collection of nine linked short stories about growing up in Montreal against a backdrop of the Holocaust. She is also the co-producer, co-writer and subject of the documentary film, “My Mother, the Nazi Midwife and Me” released in 2013. Gina’s stories have aired nationally on CBC Radio One and her essays, reviews and short stories have appeared in the Montreal Review of Books, roverarts.com, The Globe and Mail, carte-blanche.org and in the anthology, The Poet’s Word.