Motherless Child


Motherless Child

By S. Frederic Liss


Nine days before the bat mitzvah of their daughter Rebecca, what Hannah and David had dreaded most since Rebecca’s birth came to pass. Hannah returned home from work before David, catching the 5:52 from the city instead of her usual train, the 6:16. When Rebecca was younger and Hannah arrived home early, they fussed together over dinner. In those days, Rebecca loved to cook, and, on Sunday afternoons, she helped her mother fill the oven with sweets and the kitchen with aromas, their favorite being brownies from a recipe which predated prefabricated mixes with artificial flavoring and preservatives, a recipe which, according to Hannah’s immigrant grandmother, had helped to assimilate a young child to the alien world of New York’s Lower East Side. In those days, with ingredients spread on the counter, latkes sizzling on the stove or chicken roasting in the oven, Hannah was as close to Rebecca as any mother could be to her daughter.
For the reception after the bat mitzvah service, Hannah had solicited Rebecca’s help with the baking: rugelach, mandel bread, honey cake, chocolate babka, and a challah for the HaMotzi prayer. Hannah still teased   Rebecca about her first attempt at baking brownies, so hard from over-baking they could have been used as a slab for supporting a pyramid. “Can’t,” Rebecca had snapped. “I have to tweet with my BFFs.”
Now Hannah yelled down the hall, “I’m home, hon.”
A bass line thumped through the closed door of Rebecca’s bedroom. One of her BFFs had loaned her two CDs by a Texas blues band the previous summer, and she had immersed herself in the blues about the time she gave up cooking. Hannah’s musical ear was not so developed that she could differentiate between Texas blues, Delta blues, Chicago blues, Memphis blues  or any other form of the blues. The Rolling Stones were her definition of the blues. In Rebecca’s view, her mother had a rusty tin ear. The bass line seemed powerful enough to splinter the wood of Rebecca’s door, incessantly, repetitively, reminding Hannah of the sound of distant mortar explosions.
When Rebecca was five, Hannah had traveled to Israel and tracked her own father, Isaac, to a settlement in one of the territories. The first night, while she awaited word as to whether he would see her, mortar shells — Hamas or Hezbollah,  she did not know which — lit up the horizon in an aurora borealis of red, orange and yellow. Six settlers died that night, three of them children. The next morning, as the red, orange, yellow of the rising sun displaced the red, orange, yellow of exploding mortars, the chief rabbi sat her down at a wooden table as scarred as the land outside the barbed wire of the settlement fence. In the pale yellow light of his lantern, his dust-caked face looked like a desert landscape, the ridgeline of his nose like the ridgeline of a sand dune, his lifeless eyes like drought- withered watering holes. Exhausted from a night of delivering messages of death and consoling the bereaved, he informed Hannah that Isaac had no daughter, and she’d best leave or she, too, might be a casualty of war.
“I’m home,” Hannah yelled again.
When Hannah was Rebecca’s age, she, too, had blasted music behind closed doors, disregarding warnings that she would go deaf, ignoring threats of punishment if she insisted on listening to scandalous lyrics about sex, drugs, and rock and roll. Both Isaac and her maternal grandmother fought over disciplining her, and Hannah vowed that if she and David ever disagreed on Rebecca’s upbringing, they would discuss it quietly, two civilized adults trying to reconcile opposing opinions. Now a mother, she was the spoilsport, the fuddy-duddy, the dinosaur who bought new Stones CDs when no one else did.
“Rebecca didn’t inherit it from me,” David maintained. “I never wrapped myself in music behind a closed door.”
As a hurt, that was a tiny one, its pain easy for Hannah to bear, as easy as when the stranger in line at the supermarket said, “Your daughter has your smile,” or the bank teller remarked, “She must look like her father.” Rebecca’s lips were full and rounded, not thin like Hannah’s; her mouth narrow and almond-shaped, not wide and spherical; her cheekbones high and broad, not low and narrow; her nose petite, not aquiline. Unlike Hannah, whose facial muscles quivered when she passed from one emotional state to another, Rebecca had extraordinary control of her face. Rebecca did have her father’s curly hair, red as David’s mother’s once had been, and the pointed ear lobes which ran in David’s father’s side of the family.
In the hall outside Rebecca’s room, Hannah felt the vibrations of the bass notes in her sternum. A voice full enough to compete with the bass line sang of a motherless child, the lyrics too guttural for Hannah to understand. This was why she favored the Stones: she could parse their lyrics. Knocking on Rebecca’s door, Hannah waited several beats, then slowly pushed it open. The wood, resonant with the blues, tickled the tips of her fingers. Rebecca was curled up under the bedding, a body constructed of pillows. Hannah peeled back the covers. “Is my Alice disappearing down the rabbit hole?”
Rebecca kicked at her mother’s hands.
Hannah silenced the bass line. “What’s wrong, honey?”
The rabbi had counseled her and David, “Stress builds as the bat mitzvah approaches. Pre-Bat Mitzvah Stress Disorder. The last week or so is the worst. Don’t escalate it by reacting. Let it dissipate on its own.”
“Your tutor says you’ll do fine,” Hannah said.
Rebecca burrowed deeper beneath the covers, twitching the way the newly dead did. Her hand snaked out from under the blankets and spun the volume knob to its highest setting. The base pounded inside Hannah’s head. The motherless child danced around her, followed by a momentary silence, then lyrics about being born under a bad sign. Hannah wished Rebecca listened to lyrics about sex and drugs and rock and roll. They could have mother/daughter conversations about that. What did the girl know of motherless children, of being born under bad signs? Hannah chewed on the inside of her cheeks as she tried to convince herself it was only stress. She removed the CD from the player and returned it to its case. Except for Swing Low Sweet Chariot, the other titles made no sense. What kind of songs were “Motherless Child,” “Hell Hound,” “Dust My Broom,” “Calling Blue Mercy?” Not the type of songs to counteract Pre-Bat Mitzvah Stress Disorder. If Rebecca wanted music, she would have to surface.
“He’s dead.” Rebecca’s voice sounded like it emanated from the netherworld.
“Who’s dead?”
Rebecca sat up, draped by the blankets. “How could you keep him a secret from me?”
“My grandfather.”
The spite in Rebecca’s voice terrified Hannah. Her heart skipped several beats. She bit down on her fingers so hard she pierced the skin. The bones cracked. Blood filled her mouth. Her mind floated above her head like the body of a person hovering between life and death. She grabbed the bed frame to keep from fainting. The pain in her fingers spiraled up her arm into her brain and slingshot her mind back into her head. She tried to speak, but all she could do was sputter nonsense syllables. The blanket slipped from Rebecca’s head and Hannah reached for her, but Rebecca slapped her hand away.
“I know your dirty little secret,” Rebecca screamed.
Hannah’s knees buckled. She looked at Rebecca with eyes begging for mercy. Rebecca clapped the Texas blues into the CD player and returned the volume to its highest setting, then burrowed beneath the covers. The bass line shook the house and rattled the windows.
“We knew this day was coming,” David said, as he drove Hannah to the hospital.
Hannah’s father had never remarried after her mother died. Consumed by anger at God for so unexpectedly robbing him of his beloved, he had ripped the Book of Job from the family Old Testament, and sank deeper and deeper into Jewish Orthodoxy as he aged. When David had first called Isaac to share the joyous news of the birth of his granddaughter, planning to name her Rebecca to honor Hannah’s mother, Isaac’s wife, Isaac refused permission. “The name of my beloved wife,” he had said, “will not be defiled by your abomination.” When Hannah and David defied him, he moved to Israel rather than live in the same city, the same state, or nation, as a child whose name would never pass his lips. Five years later, the rabbi who had buried Hannah’s grandparents and her mother, who had married her and David — and in whom they had confided before Rebecca’s conception — refused to enroll Rebecca in his synagogue’s religious school, forcing them to uproot themselves like a family in exile and to join a new congregation where they never felt at home.
For years, David and Hannah hoped Isaac would relent and return for Rebecca’s bat mitzvah. When it was scheduled, they sent him a save-the-date card with a personal note. He did not deign to acknowledge it. Ten weeks ago they had sent him an invitation. He did not reply. They had never told Rebecca about her grandfather. It was easier to say nothing than to lie.
“How did she find out?” Hannah’s hand, wrapped in towels, was submerged in a tub of ice water which rocked with the motion of the car. Ice cubes bumped against her hand. Blood leached through the towels and tinted the water a faint pink. Pink was her favorite color. A pink dress for the reception after the bat mitzvah hung in the closet, and she had made pink frosting for the cake to be served at the reception.
“My best guess,” David replied, “she heard us arguing about whether to invite him. His name and address was on the guest list.  One of us probably left it lying around.”
“What are we going to do?”
“What we always planned to do,” David replied. “Just sooner.”
For Hannah, the weekend before Rebecca’s bat mitzvah passed in a haze induced by painkillers. In one she was Jocheved, mother of Moses, enslaved by the Egyptians to make mud bricks for the pyramids. In another she was trapped inside a child’s board game, Candy Land. Instead of candies and other sweets, the prize for spinning a magic number and reaching the winning square was a face, a young woman’s face, a head-shot, like a photo in a high-school yearbook, with a biographical note beneath it. If David visited her, with or without Rebecca, Hannah did not know. The haze was too thick, the hallucinations too strong. When her vision cleared, she saw her hand swaddled in gauze and bandaged from fingertips to wrist. With her good hand, she reached for the plunger which controlled the morphine drip.
Upon her return from the hospital, and before her first shower, Hannah encased her bandaged hand in a plastic bag and sealed it above her wrist with thick rubber bands, David had brought in Chinese take-out: two appetizers, three main courses, two orders of brown rice. He always over-ordered. Hannah aimed the shower head at her face. The water’s sting made her skittish, as nervous as a young woman being called to the Torah for her bat mitzvah. Rebecca had that effect on her. She had always done so. It was Rebecca’s eyes. There was something reptilian about them, as if Rebecca could lower a protective lens over them to prevent people from seeing into her soul.
Ever since Rebecca’s birth, Hannah had visualized how they would confess the truth to her, when they would do it, what they would say. In winter. Rebecca home — from school, from her job, from something adult. The Hanukkah candles would be lit, gifts exchanged, latkes fried, eaten with apple sauce and sour cream. They would play dreidel games for gelt, golden coins of dark chocolate. Outside, snow would fall, flurrying down, the yard a Currier and Ives print. In the fireplace, hardwoods would burn hot, warming the room, warming their hearts. An after-dinner beverage. This part varied. Sometimes red wine, sometimes hot chocolate. In some versions, Rebecca would be in college. Out of college. Maybe in law school. Maybe a career woman. Perhaps engaged, but her fiancé was away on business or visiting his parents. In other versions, she was pregnant, her husband by her side. As David stoked the fire, tending  the coals, adding another log, squeezing the bellows, Hannah would talk of children, grandchildren, motherhood, gestational motherhood, nurturing motherhood, and, lastly, biological motherhood. At the point when she imagined Rebecca visualizing herself in a rocking chair, suckling her own infant, Hannah would say, “I’m two of the three.”
And then: “Barren,” in reply to Rebecca’s question. “That was the doctor’s conclusion. Infertile. Unable to conceive. Try prayer,” he counseled when we asked if there was anything we could do.
“We  scrimped to save for a down payment on a house,” David said.
“But we wanted a child more,” Hannah added.
“In vitro fertilization,” David explained. “It was expensive. Spent the house money and then some. My parents couldn’t afford to help out. Mom’s dad . . .”
Hannah interrupted. “Adoption was not an option. I had to birth my baby myself.”
Hannah and David stared at each other. He nodded and Hannah said, “We went with a donor egg. Daddy’s sperm and a donor egg.”
“The first two attempts miscarried,” David said. “The third was you.”
As Hannah had imagined it, the three of them hugged, cried, pledged their love. Rebecca, adult, mature, the storms of adolescence behind her, understood. Happily ever after they lived. But now, Hannah switched the shower from hot to cold. Goose bumps sprouted on her skin. Her face numbed. Her fingers throbbed. She felt as she had after her miscarriages.
At the dinner table, Hannah waved her bandaged hand and joked, “No chopsticks for me.”
Rebecca sat silent, her plate empty except for a pair of chopsticks bisecting it like the hands of a clock. Hannah passed her a container of Crab Rangoon, her favorite appetizer, but Rebecca’s hands remained in her lap. “Nervous about Saturday?” Hannah asked.
“She aced her final rehearsal,” David said. “Tell Mommy, honey.”
“I’m not doing it,” Rebecca said.
“Doing what?” Hannah asked.
“It!” Defiance erupted from Rebecca’s voice. She rotated a chopstick to form a plus sign, then again to a minus sign.
David picked the hot peppers from his Kung Pao Spicy Beef and ringed them around the rim of his plate. Looking at them made Hannah’s tongue burn. She drained her water glass and refilled it. Her fingers throbbed, but she ignored them. She was weaning herself off painkillers for the weekend. She would not sit through Rebecca’s bat mitzvah in a haze. David struggled to pick up a peanut with his chopsticks, but it skittered across the table before it could reach his mouth.
Hannah ground her teeth. Spikes of pain pounded her fingers. Her father had died. Surgeons had stitched her back together like a rag doll whose seams had split open. Her daughter was acting up beyond the boundaries of Pre-Bat Mitzvah Stress Disorder. Her husband was as supportive as the vine strangling the tree trunk in the courtyard of their apartment building. Where was the husband who had comforted her in her defiance of her father? Where was the husband who had nursed her back to health after she returned from Israel, suffering her father’s rejection the way a body suffers the rejection of an alien organ after a transplant? As Rebecca had grown, entered puberty, that husband had withered before her as if his daughter had sucked his life force from him, absorbing it, adding it to her own, until he was an empty husk, powerless, she now realized, to stand up to his daughter, powerless to succor his wife in her time of need. She wished it were Monday morning, next Monday morning, the big weekend behind them, the memory of it already being repressed. She would say Kaddish for her father — once — let her fingers heal, and get on with her life.
Rebecca pivoted her chopsticks to form an X. Hannah glanced at David, cowering behind a pile of hot peppers, intent on conquering the peanuts in his Kung Pao Spicy Beef.
Rebecca pushed her plate to the center of the table, knocking over the Chicken and Snow Peas. “You’re not my mother. You know it. You’ve always known it. Now I know it.”
“I was in the delivery room,” David said, gripping a peanut with his chopsticks. “You entered the world through your mother’s vagina. Do you want to see the video?”
Hannah could not tell whether David had spoken or whether she was hallucinating.
“I carried you for nine months and suffered thirty-six hours of labor. I nursed you, changed your diapers. Linens when you wet the bed. I kissed your booboos when you fell. Don’t tell me I’m not your mother.”
“You’re nothing but a rent-a-womb,” Rebecca said. “That’s why your father shunned me. And your rabbi. Because my real mother was an atheist second-year Harvard law student, a shiksa who sold her eggs to pay tuition and buy designer clothes. You picked her out of a catalogue like a mail-order bride. What was it? Her eye color? Her hair? Her Aryan nose? Her Ivy League lineage? Did you at least get to fuck her, Daddy?”
With that question, Hannah realized she would never be a grandmother, not because Rebecca would disown her — as Isaac had done — as Rebecca would do, disappearing as soon as she turned eighteen — but because Rebecca would never resolve the conflict between her biological mother, gestational mother, and nurturing mother, and this would render her, Rebecca, as barren as if she had been born without a womb. Suddenly she and David were back in Isaac’s study reviewing what the doctor had said, explaining in-vitro fertilization, sharing the biography of the egg donor they had selected, why they had selected her, asking Isaac for a loan to help pay for the procedure. “Our medical insurance,” Hannah had said, “covers the normal prenatal expenses and birth, but we’re on our own for IVF.”
“You want I should pay to have a shiksa granddaughter?” Isaac had asked. “If God means for you to bear children, David will impregnate you. So it was for Sarah, so it will be for you.” There was a biblical certainty to his voice, an Old Testament certainty Hannah had never heard before.
Nothing they said, nothing they did, none of the rabbinic commentaries or learned articles they gave him to read, arguing that Rebecca would be as Jewish as if she had been conceived with Hannah’s own egg, changed Isaac’s mind. Instead, as if he had known this moment was coming, Isaac deluged them with Talmudic exegeses demonstrating the opposite beyond a reasonable doubt.
Somehow, Rebecca and Isaac who shared no genetic ancestry did share a gene for stubbornness, a gene for a strict unyielding interpretation of ancient texts written millennia before modern methods of fertilization had been invented. “If God had meant for children to be conceived only through copulation,” Hannah had shouted at her father, “why did He create scientists?” She felt victimized by God: not by the God of the patriarchs and matriarchs, not by the God of the Exodus, not by the God of Abraham and Isaac and Jacob, not by the God of Job, but by the perverse God of Woody Allen who toyed with His subjects the way a sadistic interrogator toyed with his prisoners.
Now, with a feast of Chinese food arrayed before them, Rebecca glared at her father, daring him to answer her question. He held his chopsticks over his plate, the peanut snug between the tips, as he explained the procedure for harvesting eggs from the donor, harvesting his sperm, storing both, inseminating the donor egg, implanting it in the gestational mother, her mother, Hannah.
“Intercourse was not involved.” As an aside, he added, “I have always been faithful to your mother.”
“You owe me your existence,” Hannah said.
“I owe you nothing,” Rebecca hissed.
As the Saturday of the bat mitzvah neared, Rebecca’s attitude hardened. She dismissed years of upbringing, millennia of heritage, for a determinism so fierce that it reduced the universe to the workings of a clock and Hannah and David to cuckoos which popped out on the hour, half hour, quarter hour. “I’m not Jewish,” she told the rabbi when she explained why she would not be called to the Torah, silencing him with the fire in her eyes when he attempted to persuade her that she was. The one or two times she spoke to Hannah, she called her by name. David was still Daddy.
The Thursday night before the big weekend, Hannah retreated into last-minute baking for the reception. She gathered the ingredients for her grandmother’s brownie recipe and ordered them on the kitchen counter, first to last, right to left, like the text in the Sabbath prayer book. The familiarity of the kitchen comforted her, every pot and pan, every utensil, in its proper place. She was eager to create something marvelous, even if it would be consumed in a fraction of the time it took to create. That was the one aspect of cooking which she could not reconcile herself to, the ephemeral nature of its creations. Her mouth watered as she anticipated the bakery aromas. They were her magic cloak. Flour overflowed the sifter. Her bandages made her clumsy, slowed her down, their weight pulling at her muscles, a strain on her wrist and forearm. Rebecca ignored her request for help, another gene she somehow shared with Isaac. David volunteered, but Hannah banned him from the kitchen. It was her domain, hers alone. As she sifted the flour, melted the chocolate, measured the milk, cracked the eggs, beat the mixture, David appeared in the door, as pale as the flour which drifted across the stove top.
“I just got off the phone with the egg donor. Rebecca phoned her. She wants to go live with her.”
Hannah began scooping the brownie mixture into a baking pan. With a rubber spatula, she spread it and patted it flat, then slid the baking pan into the oven and set the timer. With a damp sponge, she gathered the spilled flour into a pile and swept it into the sink.
“I explained the problem and asked her to come east,” David continued. “What’s the downside? Things can’t get any worse.”
“Rebecca has her face. She’ll bond to her like a parasite.”
From Rebecca’s bedroom, muffled lyrics slithered beneath the door, something about a Frigidaire woman whose love was so cold it would never thaw. Hannah turned on the oven’s interior light and watched the brownies bubble, gathering energy to rise. The song’s lyrics hung in the air, blending with the aroma of chocolate. The glow of the oven’s heating element reminded her of the aurora borealis, of reds, oranges, and yellows, of exploding mortar shells, of the sunrise over the settlement. She momentarily grazed her forehead on the window in the oven’s door. Inside the oven, heat bonded molecules of liquid to create a solid so fragile and fleeting it would crumble if dropped, or dissolve if dipped in a cup of hot coffee. She needed to create something which would endure beyond her life, beyond David’s, beyond Rebecca’s something permanent, something eternal. She shut off the oven timer and advanced the temperature setting, then withdrew from the kitchen, a displaced person with nowhere to go, her fingers throbbing, her genes on the edge of extinction, while, inside the oven, the brownies hardened, harder than ancient bricks of mud and straw, harder than the heart of her motherless child.


Copyright © S. Frederic Liss 2015

S. Frederic Liss, a Pushcart Prize nominee, has published, or has forthcoming, 38 short stories and has received The Florida Review Editor’s Award for Fiction; James Still Prize for Short Fiction sponsored by Wind; Midnight Sun Award for Fiction sponsored by Permafrost; Third prize in the Arthur Edelstein Prize for Short Fiction; Finalist for the Raymond Carver Award for Short Fiction sponsored by Carve Magazine; and Honorable Mention in the New Letters Literary Award for Fiction and the Glimmer Train June, 2014 Fiction Open.  Liss has also published in the Saturday Evening Post, The South Dakota Review, The South Carolina Review, Dogwood, The Worcester Review, and Fifth Wednesday Journal.  Liss was the recipient of a Grant-in-Aid in Literature from the St. Botolph Club Foundation, Boston, MA where he leads a workshop in writing fiction.

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