Saturday mornings Faegie’s bones would ache. From the luxury of half sleep she could attend to the accumulated ache of the week’s hard labor, of a lifetime of suffering, that infused her limbs almost like a pleasant warmth, except where the rheumatism twisted and tortured her toes and fingers. It was familiar, homey pain like the cry of babies or the touch of her husband, and she couldn’t imagine life without it.
For years now, every weekday since they bought the first shop, the alarm would pull her out of bed like the whistle for appel. Summer and winter, rain or shine, she would splash water on her face, wake the children and send them off to school, fed, clothed and fully polished, gulp down a bitter cup of coffee, wedge cheese or salami between slices of rye bread for lunch and, since they bought the car a few years ago, push the keys into the ignition and drive to the shop like a musselman looking out of a trance—until she pulled aside the heavy door, and the noise of the sewing machines and the calls of the people competing for her attention, and often enough ‘Sheya’s complaint, “Couldn’t you get here any earlier? It’s eight o’clock. Half the morning’s gone, and the shop is swimming away without you,” brought her, so to speak, alive again.
But Saturdays were different. They were so quiet, so peaceful. No alarm shocked her body and soul into unnatural motion. No one forced her to rush about like an automaton forgetful that she had a self. She would awaken slowly, to the light that filtered through the curtains and to the pure sensation of starched sheets tense against her skin. With half-open eyes she would take in the whites of the room: The clean bedding, the ivory-colored carpet spread from wall to wall, the French Provincial bureau with gold filigree, the diaphanous curtains, and the satiny white wallpaper sprayed with pale pink flowers, as delicate as the apple blossoms on the tree in her father’s garden. On Saturday mornings she would awake in pleasure to this room, to her whole house, but especially to this room. In the winter she would snuggle like a girl under warm blankets, reveling safe and sheltered from the blowing snow. No icy wind passed through the storm windows, no soldiers or peasants with daggered hands and murderous eyes through the double locked door. And in the summer, on mornings like this one, the sweet breeze and the song of birds that wafted through the open window from the garden obliterated time altogether, until she was a girl in Stryzov when her mother and father were still alive. Only the pictures were missing to make the room complete. They had been destroyed along with everything else. On the bureau where her parents should have been enshrined to sacred remembrance were framed her husband and two daughters when they were still small. She made do.
Faegie came slowly out of sleep to the luxury of this room, so fine, so fragile, in an otherwise practical life, and to the long ache of her bones. The house was empty. There was no one to disturb her. ‘Sheya had left before six as usual. He took his departure like a stopped figure in a recurrent dream. She saw him through closed eyes, bend over his shoes, and then disappear. She hardly heard him, and hardly cared anymore, though when she was younger and not yet resigned she used to long for his presence with all the poignancy of an adolescent for her first love. The children too were out of the house. Malka, the little one, was in Montreal, Canada, learning French and having a good time. Adele was spending the night in Manhattan, at a girlfriend’s after a party, so she said. She could stay in bed. There was no one she had to get up for.
The clock on the bed table told passed eight. ‘Sheya would say she was lazy, lying so long between the sheets. “Are you sick?” he’d ask her. “American women sleep late,” she’d want to say, but wouldn’t say anything. What was the use of fighting. Maybe it was just as well he wasn’t home.
Faegie pulled herself to a reclining position and reached into the night table for the newspaper clippings that she had found in Adele’s desk drawer the night before. That there should be no misunderstanding, she hadn’t been rummaging on purpose—she knew what her daughter would accuse her of—only looking for a pen to write out the checks with for the business; and then she was straightening out the mess that the girl always left her things in when the Apartment for Rent Ads offered themselves to her more attentive eye. Ads were circled and marked with checks and x’s, addresses squeezed into the margins. Exactly what each marking meant she couldn’t tell, but their meaning was clear: Adele intended to move out and leave her, again. It wasn’t enough that she was out of the house at college for four years, all expenses paid by her parents, who killed themselves in a sweatshop for their children. No, that wasn’t enough leaving then, when she could have studied at any of the city universities without paying tuition and lived at home. But now, after her daughter had come back to them for a summer, when Faegie almost didn’t believe anymore that she would, and held out to them the illusory hope of a return to the nest, she was again preparing for flight. A few weeks before she had announced, with much too much satisfaction it now showed in retrospect, the receipt of a fellowship for graduate study, and it was obvious to Faegie that instead of putting the money to good use in a saving’s account for the future, her daughter was planning to pour it all out on rent and extraneous living expenses.
No one had to tell her this in so many words. The ads were evidence of the offense and, oh, she knew her daughter well enough. She wasn’t an educated woman. The War broke out before she finished grade school, and even before that she was never one to sit with her nose in a book. She was just a simple woman, a poor girl from a small village. But she had common sense. She wasn’t stupid, as those daughters of hers with their colleges and upturned faces took her to be.
She had a nose for these things. Adele wanted to go off on her own and be independent. She said so often enough. “I want to be independent. I can’t stay attached to you like a ten year old,” she would declare, forgetting that she still had living parents in this world. As though children would be anyplace if it weren’t for their parents. You bring them up, you diaper them, you wash them, you feed them, and little by little they leave you. Their whole growing is a leaving. You bring them up, and you want them to grow big and strong so that they can go into the world and face life, whatever it brings, and you work for them and give them everything you have, and you want them to be happy, and all the time like a fool you’re preparing for their desertion. Little cockers they come into the world, no more than that, and then they grow up, they’d still be nothing if they didn’t have parents who gave them and loved them; And speak of independence. Independence they want. It wasn’t like that when she was young. Who thought about independence then? Who even knew the word? Until they weren’t there anymore, she knew she had parents and she had to listen to them. That’s what she knew. Not independence. That’s an American invention, where people don’t know they have families, where everybody goes to his tomb alone.
Looking back on it all, she could trace what happened, though only an historian could have predicted it. When they arrived in the United States, Adele was practically still in arms. ‘Sheya was disappointed when she was born, he wanted a boy, like all men; but she herself was secretly glad the first was a girl. She would have a companion. Mother and daughter. That’s how it would be. She would have a companion for her loneliness. Of course she learned soon enough that American families were different. They broke apart. Children left. Even daughters. They left to summer camps, colleges out of town, trips across the ocean to Europe. Yet when she saw her neighbors’ daughters pack their bags and kiss their parents good-bye, and their parents smile like they didn’t care, happy even, she looked at the lot of them as strange mutations of the human race. Nothing so unnatural would happen in her house.
Adele was such a good girl too. She was a big, healthy child who ate with the appetite of someone who had long been starved and slept through the night like a dog. She quickly got ahead of the other children in height and weight and before she reached adolescence already looked like a little woman. The two of them would walk sometimes, mother and daughter, hand in hand, a young mother, as she was, and a big girl, so that they could almost pass for sisters. “Is that your sister?” people who didn’t know them would ask, and she felt so proud. Really, Adele was more like a sister than a daughter in some ways, almost like a mother even, who you could confide in and tell your heart to. How many times when ‘Sheya got mad and slammed the door behind him would the two of them talk. She could talk to her like a grown up person, and tell her what her bitter life was after Hitler tore it apart and being married to a man who was so hard and angry all the time and didn’t know how to say affectionate words to a woman. Adele would listen so quietly, barely a word she let out, and you could see on her face how feeling and sensitive she was. She understood like a grown up, and you could share your pain with her.
Then it began to change, almost all at once, and she couldn’t hold the reins back. Adele turned ten. Breasts and pimples sprouted, both together, like boils and tumors on a sick body. She got her period. Her waistline hadn’t slimmed in yet. And sometimes she could swear that her daughter looked like a cannon ball. She didn’t know what to do with her. She herself developed so slowly. When she was fourteen and the Germans came, she was under ninety pounds and practically flat chested. They took her mother away and forced her to be a woman all on her own, but physically she was still a girl. And here her daughter was blossoming out of a B cup. It was indecent.
Just when she reached the age when she could expect that everything that was good before would get better, everything turned around. Adele became withdrawn and sullen, like her father. She grew clumsy and sloppy, not like a woman at all. Before, she used to sew for her and dress her up neat and pretty like a doll. But now nothing she put on her fit. Her blouses pulled at the buttons and came out of the waists of her skirts, and her skirts, always too big or too small, bunched and twisted this way and that. She cut her braids, which had kept her hair tight and trim and out of her face, and now her hair stood on her head like a lion’s mane. With the way she looked, you could hardly blame her for sometimes being ashamed to be seen with her in front of people.
She tried her best. Nobody could blame her for neglecting a mother’s responsibilities. She took her to skin doctors and diet doctors, and didn’t stint on the money, and made her promise to watch herself. But she had no sense in those years. She stuffed herself with chocolates and cakes and nuts and all the things girls her age were supposed to run away from like the plague, and when she hid them she would scavenge through the house like there was no tomorrow to find out all the hidden sweets and delicacies that they kept for company.
It’s no wonder they fought. She didn’t know what to do with her. She hadn’t been like that. The girl who had been so good and so quiet would suddenly open a mouth. “Leave me alone,” she would shout. “Look what you look like,” she’d answer. “It’s my body.” “You’re my daughter.” So it would go back and forth until Adele would raise her shoulders and lift her chin into the air and say in full defiance of her mother. “It’s my life. You had your youth. Let me live mine.” And she would answer. “Youth? What youth? I had a youth? I had a Hitler.” And Adele would storm out of the room like she didn’t care anymore.
That was the worst of the whole change, first the stubbornness about her appearance, her refusal to do anything to improve herself, and then this cutting herself off. The more she tried to reach her, the more she would withdraw. She looked at American mothers and their daughters and she saw that they were friends, they confided in each other. The girls would talk to their mothers. They would tell them about the things they did and the boys they liked. But her daughter, who was once her confidant, now told her nothing. “Who was at the party,” she would ask her by way of an opener. “No one in particular.” “What did you do?” “Talked.” “Who with?” “No one special.” “Did you dance?” “Some.” “What kept you so late?” “Nothing.” And she would work her way out of the room with heavy, graceless motions that tore at a mother’s heart and find some book to bury herself in. She couldn’t make it out. Her daughter talked to friends on the telephone for hours on end. Late at night, after she and ‘Sheya went to bed, she would get on the telephone and talk and talk. Where did she find so much to say all of a sudden? For her mother she had only zippered lips.
She didn’t like to complain to other people. Troubles shouldn’t be told outside the family. But sometimes she couldn’t help herself anymore, and when ‘Sheya wouldn’t listen, she would open herself to a friend. Not in exact words, of course; to other people she always bragged about her daughters. But she would say in general things about today’s generation, how they don’t care about their parents the way her generation did. Her friends would answer just to answer. “It’s only a phase. It’ll pass.” But what sort of phase was this that she had never gone through herself? It wasn’t normal. She loved her mother when she departed.
And her friends were wrong in the end. In her last year of high school, Adele came home one day and announced that she wanted to go out of town to college. It was like a bolt of lightning out of the blue, that she never expected, and not so different maybe from the shock that overtook them when the Germans marched into Stryzov and evacuated it. With all of the fighting, the action could have been predicted, but until it happened, until it became a fact, it was unthinkable. They had talked about-going to Russia, since the border wasn’t far, but her father said that the cellar was full of potatoes and there was no point in going out and starving on the roads when the Russians were arresting the escapees and shipping them off to Siberia, so the news came back. And here, there were plenty of good colleges in New York, free too. So what sense does it make to pay hard earned security for something you can get just as good free of charge?
She told her daughter as much, but the girl never had to work for anything in her life and always had everything she wanted, so no wonder it was she didn’t know the meaning of money and said, “But you have enough,” as if there was no more to it. Anyway, what kind of person is it that gets up and leaves a good, comfortable home just like that? “Your father and me worked all our lives so you would have a home like this to come to. Don’t you appreciate it?” But Adele didn’t know the value of what she was walking out on. “If I can’t leave a place, it’s a prison,” she spouted forth. “What kind of prison? It’s your home. You don’t know what a prison is. I know what a prison is. Your father knows what a prison is. You don’t know.” “A place I can’t leave is a prison.”
The little philosopher stuck to her position with more passion than Faegie expected to find in that phlegmatic and I graceless body. She brought to her aid and defense one of the American teachers, who told them that Adele was I a talented girl who should have the best possible education. “So what’s wrong with the best possible education in New York? There’s Barnard College for girls! and the City College, where the most famous judges went.” “Nothing’s wrong with them,” the teacher answered, “They’re excellent schools. Only it’s important for a young person to strike out on his own. Let them try their wings, we say, learn about the world, experience life. In America everybody does it. And if their parents can afford it, there’s nothing better for this than a good college education in a new environment.” The teacher intimidated them with her “in America.” She was so smooth and sure of herself and made it seem that the way things were done in America was the way God sent down from Mt. Sinai. And who were they, poor refugees taken in by this great country, to question its ordinances? So with time and battery, and after Adele brought friends and friends’ parents home with their arguments, their resolve was broken down. Their daughter had her way, the unthinkable became fact. After Adele left, Malka followed in turn, as could only be expected once the doors were opened.
For the second time in her lifetime, Faegie’s family was torn apart. A woman doesn’t readily reconcile herself to such a tearing twice. Maybe if the first hadn’t happened, the second leaving wouldn’t have cut into her heart so deeply. Who knows? The first time she was young, and even when they made her father dig his own grave and they put her mother and sister on the line to the gas chamber, she still looked forward to the future. Maybe it was because she was too young to understand what was happening to her when she ran from her mother’s side to the other line and then when she ran away from the labor camp with ‘Sheya and her brother. But even at the worst moments then she wanted to live, and she looked forward to having a life when this gehenom would play itself out. But now that her daughter up and left the house, she looked back at the life she had led and wasn’t at all sure that the gehenom had indeed ended. Was this living? Wearing herself into exhaustion in a sweatshop day after day, to make one more coat, one more dollar, for a husband who didn’t know what a woman needed, and for children who began to leave you with their first step? Whatever the teacher said about how things were done in America, Faegie knew in her heart of hearts that Adele wanted nothing more than to run away from home, from her parents. It was clear enough once she let herself look at the truth. Her daughter always refused to share her life with her. All those years when she could, if she had only wanted to, have returned to her mother something of the years Hitler took away, she said no. She made herself ugly, forgive a mother for saying this of her daughter, and silent, and distant.
By the time Faegie poured her second cup of bitter coffee, she had turned the grief of a lifetime into justified anger, which would power her for the next step. She acknowledged her first mistake: letting Adele walk out four years ago. Now she was too much her own person; she thought that life means doing what you want to do, without consideration for other people. And, who knows, if she had stayed at home like a girl should, and not gone running off like someone with no background, she might have met a nice man and be married today, with a house and a husband, and grandchildren for her parents, to fill the empty space. That would have been the right and natural way of going, not just running off into a wilderness and coming back with empty hands, but bringing something, children, and happiness and fullness.
But that mistake was made already, like many others. This desertion would have to be prevented. She would have to take matters into her own hands this time and not let herself be persuaded. Well, she wouldn’t let herself be frightened again. When she put her mind to it, she knew how to handle things. That much was fortunate. If you asked Adele, she would tell you that her mother was a hysterical woman. “Every time something happens, you act like the world’s going to end,” she would tell her. “A cup breaks, a worker doesn’t show up one day, a check bounces, and you go off like a firecracker on doomsday.” “I’m a nervous woman,” she had to confess. “Who wouldn’t be after what I went through?” And Adele was silenced. But when a real catastrophe was upon her, then she knew how to take hold of herself and the situation.
Faegie sat herself straight up in her chair, took a fortifying breath, and experienced the full capacity of her shoulders and her hands. Those shoulders of hers had bent over great troughs of dough in the lager and those hands shaped loaves for over forty men. In those shoulders and those hands she placed her confidence, not in the unreliable world, which had done nothing to merit her faith. It was their young strength that had saved her, and it was in their power to shape reality that she believed. They at least had proved themselves. Not only in the lager, but all those years in America, when she brought up the children with one hand and ran the shop with the other. ‘Sheya was a good workman, she had to respect him for that, but without her he couldn’t have managed the business. He wasn’t the type. She was more than an equal partner. And while she envied all those women who could just sit home all day and look out the window, and didn’t have to rush and carry and pull and keep the workers contented in a sweatshop, you couldn’t deriy that she felt satisfaction in her accomplishment. So she made herself ready. If the years hadn’t brought her pleasure, they had taught her to face challenges and overcome obstacles. In her mind she gathered her forces. Now it remained to set a plan in action.
But it was early yet, and the day of freedom she looked forward to every week stretched in front of her like an empty tunnel. She sighed and cleaned up the breakfast dishes and sought for a more concrete occupation to fill the idle time until Adele came home. She looked around. There was nothing much for her to do. The house was as spic and span as on any TV commercial. The carpet was vacuumed, the dust frighted away, you could eat off the kitchen floor. The refrigerator was filled to brimming, prepared for half a week of normal duty or for any emergency, such as unexpected company or a war. The living room windows and bathroom tiles shined. Really, it was a wonder she did all this. Other women stayed home and didn’t have to work, and didn’t accomplish half as much. But she knew how to put her time to use. No one could accuse her of lazying away an evening.
Now Saturday remained to be filled. If Adele were home, she could talk to her, and the time would pass away of itself. She didn’t know when Adele would be back, though. “I don’t even know when I’ll get up in the morning, how should I know when I’ll get back?” was her daughter’s answer when she asked. The girl had no consideration for a mother’s feelings and was even more secretive and evasive now than she was as a teenager. She had taken to spending nights in the city, at friend’s apartments, that’s what she said, so she wouldn’t have to ride back late on the subway. Yet Faegie wondered. Why wouldn’t she want to write down a phone number? She would explain every time that you could never tell, there might be an emergency, she might need her for something, it’s always good to give a number. But yesterday she had to remind her daughter three times, and if she hadn’t caught her just at the door, Adele would have walked out without letting anyone know where she could be reached. She forgot, she said. Go and believe her. They say professors are absent- minded. Still, who could know what a girl that age might be doing; and, unfortunately, Faegie could imagine only too vividly, though it was her daughter, and she always brought her up to go on the right path.
The kitchen clocked showed passed nine. Adele should be up by now. The telephone hanging on the wall next to the table gleamed and beckoned, promised to fill up the empty spaces and gratify a mother’s desire. Faegie hesitated. Adele might be angry, she got annoyed so easily. But, after all, she is her mother, and a mother has a right to know. She would just ask he what time she was planning to come home. That was a legal enough question.
Faegie’s fingers followed the motions of her heart. At the other end, the phone rang and rang. There was no answer, which threw Faegie into a momentary confusion, until she could reset the gears of her mind to tackle a new problem. There were so many possibilities. Hopefully, Adele was on her way home already. But then why didn’t her friend answer? Anyway, after a night of partying, would she be getting out of bed at this hour? No, the signs pointed in less favorable directions. Maybe her daughter was out looking for an apartment. Or maybe she spent the night somewhere else, someplace she wouldn’t want her mother to know. Faegie could barely decide which eventually was worse, both struck her as dismal. With all that she did, her daughter would elude her. So be it then. Faegie had known enough defeats in her life not to let this one rout her. She would muster her new rancor for the more important battle that was soon to follow. That would be the important struggle, maybe the last opportunity life would offer her.
Waiting for her daughter’s return, Faegie went through the rituals of Saturday. She phoned Adele, not her daughter, the other one. She was always sorry after she spoke with her—the woman had grown such a cow in her old age. Maybe she always was ‘Sheya and Adele both said so, but then she had formed the attachment so long ago, right after the liberation, in the DP camp, and habits are hard to break.
“How are you?”
“Fine. Fine. How are you?”
“Alright. I’m just sitting here drinking coffee.”
“You shouldn’t drink so much coffee. It’s bad for your nerves.”
“I know. But what can I do? I’m like a drug addict. I can’t wake up without coffee. And we’re all so nervous anyway, a little more, a little less, what’s the difference?”
“It’s only a bad habit.”
“Maybe. But what pleasures do I have in my life that I should deny myself coffee too?”
“Is ‘Sheya home?”
“No. He had to go in today.” Faegie resisted telling her not to ask what she already knew.
“He works too hard. You should tell him to take it easy a little. He deserves to take it easy once in a while. We all do. Tell me, what does he do there all the time?”
“It’s the season. It’s busy. You know how it is. We work when we can, not when we want to. That’s the kind of business it is. We’re sewing for winter now.”
“My Ben’che is here with me, sitting right next to me—he says hello, you should come over later. How’s Adele?”
“David just finished breakfast and is studying in his room for the test for the Master’s degree. It’s an important test. He has a big date with his fiance tonight, so he has to study now in the morning. Is Adele there?”
“No, she’s still sleeping. She came home late last night, from a party in New York, and she’s tired.”
“She went to a party?”
“With someone special?”
“No. I don’t think so. She has a lot of friends. They always invite her… Adele, I hear the postman. I’m waiting for a letter from the little one. I’ll come over later.”
The mail wasn’t due for an hour yet. Why do I always let her make me feel small? Faegie wondered. ‘Sheya says she’s nothing but a foolish old woman. “What do you need her for? She’s twenty years older than you. What do you have in common with her, a woman enough to be your mother?”
She knew. Still, the ties were strong. People don’t make friendships like that anymore. They became friends when neither of them had anything or anybody—in the long days at the DP camp, when the men left early in the mornings to sell watches and stockings and other whatnots to the Germans, and the women waited, those that were lucky waited, for their husbands to return, their business done, late in the evenings. Faegie waited for ‘Sheya. Adele waited for Ben’che. They waited with longing and with trepidation, in case there was some trick, in case there was some accident, and their husbands would disappear like the others had. They waited, and they talked. Faegie told Adele about her sainted mother and martyred sister. Adele told of the blessed baby daughter the Germans took away and she never saw again. They waited and they talked, shared their desire and their fear, and the bonds that bind one heart to another bound themselves.
Faegie looked up to Adele in those days. Even in the rags they all wore, Adele looked like a lady. She knew how to carry herself and how to hold her head. Faegie would watch her walk and sit and stand and would learn from her the art of what it was to be a woman. When she became pregnant it was to Adele that Faegie naturally turned to teach her the things that a mother teaches a daughter. Adele was knowledge. Adele was grace. Adele was comfort and consolation. It was a good thing for Faegie that by the time Adele and Ben’che got their permits and left to America that her own little Adele was born, and she had somebody to care for and busy away the time, because in the long hours when ‘Sheya was gone and her precious infant asleep and she waited alone and there was no work to occupy her, she would feel lost, like a homeless spirit adrift in empty blue space. Those moments, thank God, didn’t come often, she knew how to push them away.
The first years in America were good too. The friends lived in nearby Brooklyn neighborhoods, only a short bus ride away, and in nice weather they walked to visit. The children played together. Adele and Faegie continued to confide in each other, though each was already busy with her own troubles. A few years later Adele and Ben’chie bough an expensive house in Queens. Faegie and ‘Sheya scraped together every cent they had and followed after, a move they never regretted. Faegie in particular loved the solid brick and stone of the house and the sturdy, deep-rooted trees outside. The real estate value went steadily up and long ago returned the investment.
So when did it all change? When did the friendship begin to taste bitter in the mouth? Maybe when we bought the house, Faegie thought, when I began to come into my own. Ben’che helped us find it, and Adele said how happy she was we’d be neighbors and have each other to talk to. But one night before we signed the contract, she said, “Oh, Faegie, how will you and ‘Sheya be able to pay the mortgage? You have to work so hard. It would be so much better to keep the down payment in the bank and you can have the interest to live from “—like she didn’t want us to buy it and have something of our own, and her meaning had to be hidden in words that sounded like she wanted the best for me. But if we’d listened to her then we’d have nothing today, and the principal in the bank wouldn’t have twenty percent of its original value.
I began to dress then too. Not in hundred dollar suits, like she did, it was a lot of money for us. But now I knew how to hold myself, like she taught me and I put on a simple dress or a nice skirt and blouse and combed my hair and put on a little lipstick, and I was a good looking woman. Even after two children, my skin stayed smooth and I kept my figure—while her backside was already flowing out of her girdle and her face, when she didn’t smear creams on it and cover it with powder, looked like a potato that lay in the cellar all winter. It was then, maybe when I began to grow into a full woman, ripe like, and didn’t have to listen to her anymore, that the spite in her came up and the envy. But I didn’t pay attention then, I didn’t see it all at once. A person doesn’t see so quickly what they don’t want to.
Faegie’s daughter came in quietly, like she didn’t want to be heard. “Where were you?” Faegie asked before she could get to her room.
“I told you, at Sherry’s.”
“I telephoned before nine. Nobody answered.”
“We went to the park.”
“To the park? What for?”
“To take a walk. To see some trees, grass.”
“So early? Who goes to the park so early?”
“It’s nice before all the people come.”
“Don’t you think it’s dangerous to go walking in the park?”.
“Well, there were two of us. And nobody’s going to attack us on a Saturday morning.”
“You never know.”
“You never know anything in this life, and I can’t go around being afraid all the time.”
“What time did the party finish?’
“How was it?”
“Did you meet anyone?”
“No one in particular.”
“I talked to Adele. She asked about you, whether you were home.”
“The busybody puts her nose into everything.”
“I told her you were sleeping.”
There was anger in her daughter’s voice, and here a mother was just trying to make conversation. You can’t say anything to her these days. Still, Faegie was not going to be deterred. “Come into the living room. I want to talk to you.”
The two women sat down at opposite ends of the couch. Adele looked at her mother with suspicion. Despite her preparation, Faegie didn’t feel ready. She felt like she was facing an adversary in a courtroom, not a daughter. She looked down at the carpet, bright green at their feet, like the eternal grass. It was Adele who persuaded her to buy green. When they moved into the house, she had her heart set on beige or pale gold, the fashion then, and it seemed to her the height of elegance. But Adele said, “Green is more practical. I’m not going to take my shoes off every time I walk into the house. A house is to live in, not to look at.” So Faegie bowed to her daughter’s judgment: green for the rooms that the family used, the pure beauty of white for the master bedroom.
Adele waited. Faegie drew the Apartment for Rent ads out of her pocket and placed them on the black marble table with the gold leaf painted wooden base that separated the two women. Adele glanced down, then averted her eyes. Her daughter objected to that table too, Faegie recalled.”This is showy and fake,” she pronounced. “Why don’t you get something simple like Colonial or Danish?” But here Faegie stuck her ground, because her daughter was in the wrong. After she worked so hard to have her own house and to root herself, Faegie would have only the finest and the best in her home. This table caught her imagination. She saw in the opulent grain of the marble and dull gleam of the gold paint a long tradition of unknown aristocracies going back far in history to the present day, and she grasped at it. Her daughter’s taste reminded her of the rustic furniture that the peasants in the village had.
“Well?” Adele cut into her mother’s musings.
Faegie felt caught in a desperate confusion. This wasn’t like her, thinking about furniture when she had a vital matter to deal with. “Do you remember how we decorated the house?” she blurted out, trying to cover her distraction.
“Yes. I remember how you decorated the house. Is that what you want to talk to me about?”
Faegie pointed to the newspaper clippings. “Are you looking for an apartment?” she said more than asked, biding her time, not fully knowing what was going to come next.
Faegie took a deep breath and thrust her chin out. Then the words came, unplanned words, words that she hadn’t thought through that morning while she waited. “I don’t want you to leave,” she said into her daughter’s defiant eyes. “I don’t want you to leave. Don’t say anything. I know what you’re going to say. Everybody moves out. You want to be independent. The traveling to and from the city is hard. You want your privacy. You’ve said all that before. And I listened. Now you listen to me.
“You don’t know what it is to leave. You sit here in the warmth and comfort of our home, and you take it all for granted. You don’t know what a home means. You don’t know how to value a home. You’ve always had one. We worked hard, your father and me, for you to have a home to come to and to bring people to and to be proud of. I know you think your parents are old fashioned and don’t know anything. But we did things that people with more education and advantages couldn’t always do. After the War, we had nothing, and we built a home for you out of nothing.
“When I was a girl, I never had what you have. We lived six of us in two rooms, that’s all, and I was lucky when I could sleep in the kitchen that was still warm from the oven. Your uncles and me used to fight over the beds and who would get the warmer blanket. Your uncle Saul always got it because he was older, and everything went to the oldest.
“Then the Germans came and took even that. They drove us out of our house, and after the war when I went back with your father, I saw Poles living in it. ‘Are you Jews still alive?’ they asked us, So we had to leave. They were killing the Jews who came back.”
“You told me all this, many times.”
“No. I never told you, never really, not everything. I told you about my father, how they made him dig his own grave. I was alone in the house with your father—he was just out of the hospital, and it was before things really started, and we weren’t married yet. My mother left the house early in the morning. I don’t remember why. Maybe to sell something or to buy something. I don’t know. There was a noise and my father went outside. The Germans were rounding up Communists. They saw him, an old Jew with a hat on his head and a beard, and they picked him up too. I saw. We stood at the window, your father and me. I wanted to run out to him, but your father held me back. He said they’d kill us. I watched. There was a field. The Germans made them pick up shovels and dig a big pit. Then they shot. I screamed “Daddy!” and held onto your father. He pulled away.
“My mother came back later that day. When she heard, she turned her eyes up and an expression like an angel’s came into her face, and she said/Don’t worry, don’t worry, Faegie, we’ll be together one day. ‘l thought she was crazy. ‘Don’t you understand?’ I cried. ‘Yes, yes, I understand.’ That’s all she said.”
“You told me all this already.”
“No. Not all of it. This is only the beginning. I never told you the rest. I couldn’t. I wanted. I wanted so much, but I couldn’t bring myself to. Now it’s important. I have to tell you.”
“Mother, what’s the use?”
“The Germans went, and we hoped that would be the end of them. I think we knew it wouldn’t but we hoped; and there was no place to run by then. Then they came back. It was maybe after a few days, a week, or a month. I can’t tell you. Time had no meaning then. They came back and they took us all.
“I won’t tell you everything. There’s too much to tell, and I don’t know how. Only this. This you have to know. They separated us into lines. Your father and your uncles to the right; to the left the women with small children, and the old, and the young. I stood with my sister and mother. We didn’t know what right and left meant then. Now everybody knows. But then you couldn’t imagine those things, we didn’t want to. I was skinny and I had no breasts yet and looked younger than my age. My sister was the big and healthy one, but you could see that she was still a child, not even ten yet. She was like you, full, and she liked to eat. She would have wanted to live too. My mother looked at the men on the line across from us, and she said to me, ‘Faegie, go to Saul, run; you’ll cook for him, he’ll need you.’ Saul was always spoiled in the house. He was the oldest, but my mother treated him like a baby.
“I ran. There was a guard who pretended not to see. I ran. I left my mother and my sister there. Do you understand? I left them there. To die. To be gassed to death. A voice called after me. ‘Faegie, don’t leave me! Faegie, don’t leave me!’ I don’t know whose voice it was. It could’ve been my sister’s voice; but maybe my mother changed her mind and it was her voice. I don’t know. I was running too fast. I didn’t listen to the voice. You see, I didn’t listen then. Now I hear the voice all the time in my mind.
“From the other side, we saw the people being marched away. My mother and sister held onto each other. They left together. The guards were pushing us in the other direction so that we wouldn’t look. They said they were going to a rest camp and that soon we’d meet again in the family camp. I wanted to believe them. Saul said I was an idiot, didn’t I understand yet who the Germans were? It would’ve been better if I’d stayed where they put me and gone with the others, he said. Your father told him to keep his mouth shut, we’d manage somehow. I suppose he meant well, yes he did; but he spoke so harsh, even to me. And I felt so alone. I wanted my mother. But she left already, with my sister. And once we got to the lager, I didn’t believe anymore what the Germans promised, that we’d all meet. I wanted my mother.”
Faegie paused, waiting, she wasn’t sure for what, for some response. Adele remained silent, her face a blank, not a promise, not a sign. Faegie continued. “You see, this is what you don’t know. How my mother and sister walked away, arm in arm, and how I never saw them again. I wanted my mother so much. You don’t know this. What it is to part with a mother and to need a mother and not to have one.
“When you were little, we never left you to go out and enjoy ourselves at night. Your father and me didn’t leave you with babysitters. We refugees, we’re not like American parents who think only for themselves and go out and have a good time and leave their children with babysitters. I stayed with you whenever I could. I was always afraid what would happen. If sometimes I had to go out, I saw pictures in my mind. You fell, you got sick, somebody kidnapped you. I heard your voice crying. I ran back as fast as I could. Later I had to go to work with your father, but what did I think about all day? You and Malka. You and your sister. That’s what kept me going all these years, that I could see you in my mind and talk to you, and that I came home and you were safe.
“Your father wanted a boy, especially the first. You know how European men are. When you were born, I was afraid of what he’d say to me, but secretly I was happy. It was a miracle to me to have a child after everything that happened. It was like the world was opening up before me and I’d have a new life. And that you were a girl I was double happy. I’d have a companion, somebody to talk to. I wanted to name you Nehema, after my mother, but your father wouldn’t let me. He said that if he didn’t have a boy, he at least wanted to name you after his mother. I gave in. I had no choice. Anyway, I liked the name Adele. Do you know what it means? Aedel: loyal, close to home. I said to myself I’ll have an aedel child, and even if I can’t name her after my mother, she’ll be a comfort to me. My mother’s name, Nehama, means comfort. I was happy.
“And now you want to leave. Out of the blue, when you don’t even know what it means to leave. How many nights when you’re alone and you’re feeling sad you’ll wish, ‘If only I had my mother, I’d have someone to talk to. I’d have someone to care for me.’ Even with a husband, it’s not the same. There’s nothing like a mother’s love. A husband won’t give you a mother’s love.
“So you see. I can’t have you leave. I forbid you to leave.”
Faegie looked at her daughter. The girl sat there, expressionless, frozen as the marble on a tomb. What was the matter with her? Faegie too remained motionless and, now that she’d finished, as weary and patient as the eternal grass. She looked at her daughter over the distance of the black marble table with the painted gold leaf base. The table seemed to rise out of the carpet like a monument. How huge the space between them suddenly seemed. Everything was dead still. Not even the air moved. The newspaper ads lay on the tabletop like dead soldiers. Finally Adele nodded, but with such a subtle and indistinct motion that Faegie couldn’t tell whether she turned her head up and down or left and right. She thought what she wanted to.
For several weeks, or maybe it was only days, the time stretched so, no one broached the subject. Adele came and went, sometimes informing her mother that she was spending the night at a friend’s. Faegie tried not to ask too many questions, though old habits are hard to break, and she carried the forced constraint in the pucker of her lips.
Then one day they came home from work to find a note on the kitchen table, held in place by a coffee cup. “I found an apartment and have moved my things over. I’m sorry I had to leave this way, but you gave me no choice. If you want to reach me….”
Faegie let out a loud wail. The end had come. Then she sat down and put her head on the table and cried, and cried, and cried, the bitter tears of a girl for her first love.
Toby Mostysser lives in Tel Aviv where she works as a wordmonger. Her most satisfying creation in recent years has been her daughter who in the course of events, will also leave one day.