By Linda Hirschel
Mrs. Gold’s doctor had suggested to Lisa that she send her mother to a morning club for the elderly, on account of the slow decaying of her mind. So on Monday, Tuesday, and Thursday, Lisa would take her mother on the bus to the club. The club was designed for people over seventy years old. Lisa’s mother was one of the younger ones, but she said that no one told their age. Nevertheless, she could not ride the bus on her own because she was never sure if it was this stop or the next one. Also, going through the religious neighbourhoods made her nervous, and because the club was one of her few pleasures, necessary for her cognitive health, and free, she said Lisa could at least put herself out to take her, considering all she did for Lisa. Lisa did not like to consider all her mother did for her, but three days a week she braced herself and took her.
Mrs. Gold was almost ready to go, standing before the hall mirror, putting on her shoes, while Lisa waited for the emotional needles to begin poking her. The shoes were new and had cost her mother one hundred shekels. She kept saying, “Maybe I shouldn't have paid that for them. No, I shouldn't have. I'll take them off and return them tomorrow. I shouldn't have bought them.”
Lisa raised her eyes to heaven. “Yes, you should have bought them,” she said. “Put them on and let's go.” They were hideous shoes. Two yellow tassels drooped over the red shoelaces of each dark grey shoe. Lisa decided they were pathetic. Everything that gave her mother pleasure depressed Lisa.
Mrs. Gold jammed her skinny feet into the shoes. She had that curious walk of a grown woman who jaunts back and forth, skipping like a child. In reality, a child she was becoming. From the childlike way that she walked, you would not have known that she was a widow who had struggled fiercely to feed and clothe her daughter, to marry her off, and to support the young couple “until they got on their feet.”
“It's all right, it's all right,” Lisa said.” Let's go.” She opened the door and started down the walk to get her mother going. The Jerusalem sky was a brilliant blue. Pesach was long over and so was Shavuot. It was the beginning of Tammuz.
“It's all downhill from here,” Lisa murmured to herself, taking in the hot summer air. Tammuz, then the hot month of Av. They would not see another cloud until Elul. She walked slightly ahead of her mother, playing the game she had always played as a child: She’s not my mother; I don't know this lady.
“Well, you only live once,” Mrs. Gold waxed philosophical. “Hare today, goon tomorrow.” It was from a joke so old that Lisa could imagine grey hair growing from it. She had noticed that with the cognitive decay, her mother seemed to live from proverb to proverb, as if each one was some kind of nourishment for a thirsty soul.
“Some day I'll start making money,” Lisa said gloomily, knowing she never would, “and you can fill your closet with shoes.” But first they would move out of her mother’s house. Her mother would live across town from her and her husband. Far, far away, with a foreign worker to take care of her.
“I think you're doing fine,” her mother said, putting on her scarf (scarf in the summer? but Lisa decided not to say anything). “You've only been married a year. Life isn't about finding yourself. Life is about creating yourself.”
Lisa thought she could have put up with her mother a lot better if her mother had been selfish, or screamed at her. Lisa walked along, drenched in sweat and depression. Catching sight of the annoyance on her daughter’s face, Mrs. Gold exclaimed, “That's it, I'm taking these shoes back! I could have paid half the electricity bill with that money!”
“You are not taking them back.” Lisa grabbed her mother’s arm and hurried her to the bus stop. “I like them,” Lisa growled through clenched teeth. “Enjoy them.”
Her mother continued: “Of course, I know who I am. If you know who you are, you can go anywhere.” She said this every time she went to the club. “Most of them don't know who they are, and they're not my kind of people. Most of them have absolutely no culture. I grew up with Shakespeare and Beethoven. They grew up with Twinkle Twinkle Little Star. Like your neighbors. They’ll never get anywhere at the rate they are going, your neighbors.”
Oh no, she was on this topic again. Every few days she rolled onto this topic like a rolling pin on dough, pinching and prodding the subject until it formed the shape in her mind that she wanted: a perfect pie crust for her to pile in her opinions.
“They won't get anywhere, these religious people, unless they get educated, learn math, go to the army…”
Lisa interjected, “Let's leave that for right now.”
“…and they could clean up their kids and…”
Lisa’s mother looked down at her feet. “Well, let’s talk about something pleasant,” she said.” I remember visiting Opa in Vienna. Now there was a lady! True royalty! She served tea in delicate china cups with pink flowers hand-painted on them. Oh yes, that was class.” She took a breath. It was difficult to walk and talk at the same time. She continued, “And she was religious, too! And you can be sure that she knew who Sheakspeare and Beethoven were.”
Her mother always seemed to come back to this, ever since Lisa had become religious at age fifteen. The subject was always that these religious people are not the real thing, and besides, they are not cultured. Lisa frowned.
“Well, you're not in the best of moods today, are you?” her mother asked.
Actually, Lisa was always in a bad mood when she was with her mother. In fact, she noticed that she was almost always in a bad mood. She looked at her mother, down to the ridiculous shoes. She had a horrible urge to break her mother’s will.
The bus came from around the corner. They got on the bus, Mrs. Gold sitting in the last seat. There was another woman in the middle of the bus. Her stringy hair hung down to her shoulders and her slacks just covered her knees. There were a few other people scattered throughout the bus.
Mrs. Gold began a conversation with whoever would listen. “Is it very hot or is it just me?” She took out a fan and began fanning herself and then Lisa, and then herself again.
“It's a hot one, all right,” said Stringy Hair.
Mrs. Gold looked around at the passengers. There were no black hats on the bus, and no women with head coverings. “I see we have the bus to ourselves,” she said, ignoring her daughter's presence.
“For a change,” said Mrs. Stringy Hair. “I came on here the other day and they were thick as termites.”
“My daughter isn't really one of them. She became religious later in life.”
This was really going too far. Lisa glared at her mother. “Mother!” she hissed. “You don't have to tell my life story to the whole world.”
Mrs. Gold continued, “She and her husband are going to move out as soon as they get on their feet. I always tell her, ‘Life isn't about finding yourself. Life is about creating yourself.’”
Stringy Hair nodded knowingly.
Lisa had taken out a book of psalms and was busy zooming through one verse after another. She was retreating to the deepest part of herself, which is where she spent most of her time. This was her own private chamber where she could see out, but no one could see in. She had developed this ability as a small child, and as she grew older she added to the room in her mind: a picture, a couch, a warm fuzzy carpet. She was comfortable there. She could see out, and her mother could not see in. And from this place she saw her mother with perfect clarity.
It went something like this: First her mother had messed her up, and then her mother gave her everything to her in order to fix the mess. And her mother was convinced that she had won the war. For that’s what it was: a war. From Lisa’s earliest memories, it had been a war. She did not remember her father; he had died when she was four. There was just Lisa and her mother. Her mother had won because she had stayed up with her when she had the flu, she took her to the dentist twice a year, and she went to every single PTA meeting. And now Lisa and her husband lived with her mother until they “got themselves on their feet.” Her mother had won the war of survival.
In spite of growing up in the shadow of her mother, Lisa did manage to join the shidduch world and get herself married to a wonderful man. This was in spite of her mother, not because of her.
Lisa longed for Elul. She longed for the fresh air of Elul. She longed for a fresh start, for a way out of the undertow, that feeling of having no control over her emotions or her life. Sometimes it was a subtle pull which she found difficult to resist, and other times it was an actual tsunami. She longed for change.
The bus stopped suddenly and Lisa was shaken out of her reverie. A religious woman with quite a few children in tow, including a stroller, got on the bus.
Mrs. Gold nudged Lisa. “You see why I can't ride the buses myself? I can barely breathe. I might faint, and where would I be without you?”
Lisa got up to ask the mother if she needed help bringing her bus passes to the driver.
“Oh, yes, thank you so much.”
Lisa stared at her own mother with dagger eyes as she went up to the driver with the woman’s cards. She felt a shot of power rushing through her veins.
The bus stopped, and a woman walked down the aisle and sat directly next to her mother. The woman had a black scarf on her head, and when Lisa returned to her seat and looked down, she saw yellow tassels drooping over red shoelaces. This Hasidic woman was wearing the exact same dark grey shoes with yellow tassels and red shoelaces as her mother. Lisa let go a guffaw. She couldn't help laughing. Mida k’neged mida: measure for measure. Cosmic justice.
When her mother looked down at the woman’s shoes, her face registered horror. How could it be that a sophisticated woman like her was wearing the identical shoes as a primitive religious woman? How could it be?
Everyone on the bus settled down for a shared ride together. Her mother avoided looking directly at the woman with the black scarf, but she stole glances at her shoes. The very same shoes. Lisa felt a smirk on her face. Her mother also had the same black scarf around her neck that the woman had on her head. Shoes and scarves. The great equalizers.
A little boy with a checkered shirt and peyos sat down next to Lisa, in front of her mother. He put his fingers over his eyes and peeked out at Mrs. Gold, who became animated. “Peek-a-boo!” she shouted. “Lisa, look how adorable he is! Just like the little boys in the Chagall paintings! He looks just like a character from a Chaim Potok novel.” She and the boy played peek-a-boo for a few bus stops.
Her mother was slowly losing her mind. Lisa imagined her mother’s mind as a swirling ocean. Sometimes it dredged up the black ocean mud which was the way her mother used to be, and sometimes it turned up deep sea treasures. Her mother had never liked religious people, but Lisa had to admit that as her mother grew more into a child, there was something charming about her. There was something touching about the way her memory was turning up beautiful treasures, like a diver discovering blue and green corals, purple and turquoise stones. Although her mother had detested religious traditions as an adult, now her childhood Yiddish was coming back. She began to remember traditions she had grown up with, like that Havdalah could be made until Tuesday morning, and that the bracha on water was “she’hakol yihiye beseder!”. It didn't even bother Lisa that her mother said the bracha wrong. "That everything should be good" was a sort of yearning that floated up out of the deep sea.
As Lisa was sitting on the hot bus, she realized there was opportunity in this ocean of treasures. She wasn't sure how, but maybe she could start over with her mother. Maybe the new child in her mother would be eager for a new journey, and maybe they could travel it together. She felt a vague thumping in her chest which she did not recognize. It was the faint beating of hope.
The bus was unbearably full. Just then, someone asked in a loud voice, “Whose bag is this?” Pointing to a large red bag on the floor. No one responded.
“Whose bag is this?!” more people were asking, and no one answered.
“Driver! Driver! “ people began to shout. “There’s a suspicious object!”
The bus lurched to a stop. Both doors, front and back, flew open. As the bus began to empty out, Lisa and her mother stared helplessly from the back row. They could not move because they were at the back of the bus, behind the big red duffle bag that blocked the aisle.
The woman with the stringy hair looked like a turkey, stretching out her neck as she ran away. The woman with the black scarf jumped up and leapt through the door like a jaguar. Where did she get the strength? Lisa wondered vaguely. She remembered reading how people gather tremendous energy in moments of trauma. There was something humorous about the way the passengers looked to her like different animals. She stifled a nervous giggle while seeking some way to get herself and her mother off the bus.
The passengers who had exited now huddled in a group some distance from the bus.
A soldier nearby was asleep with earphones on. He opened one eye. “What is happening?” he murmured.
Mrs. Gold was sitting in front of him, and Lisa in front of her. “It's a suspicious object.” Lisa told him. The solder couldn't hear because his music was too loud.
“Whaa?” he asked, taking off one of his earphones.
Lisa pointed. “That duffle bag on the floor. It's a suspicious object.”
The soldier was fully awake now. “That's my duffle bag!”
Lisa and her mother looked at each other. The heat, the crowded bus, and the tension were too much for them. The giggle started like a volcano in the bottom of their bellies and rumbled its way to the top. Then tears began to drip from their eyes. They couldn't stop laughing even to tell the bus driver that the mystery of the suspicious object had been solved. They laughed and laughed and laughed. A belly laugh. A cleansing laugh.
Soon people realized whose bag it was and returned to the bus. It traveled until it was one stop away from their club. Lisa took her mother’s arm and gently accompanied her through the aisle and out the door. They would walk to the club together.
Lisa looked up. There was one wispy cloud in the sky. Elul was coming.