Mostly, Esther felt confused. How many, how many? Were twenty forks enough or should she polish more? With exhaustion and only the greatest discipline she surveyed the buffet to insure the olive tray was filled with both greens and blacks, the brisket sliced thin — “Lady, what are you trying to do to me? On Thanksgiving week, no less,” the man at the catering place had grumbled when she’d phoned in her request. Who could worry about a table’s presentation, when no mirror could help with her own appearance today? No mirrors, and — her glance taunted even as it fled to the frames draped with towels in the shiva tradition — no Stephen, to convince her as he always had before, “Sweetie, you look fine.”
In some strange way, she was proud that her hand shook only slightly registering the news. Proud, that she wasn’t as blindsided by unknowns tonight as she’d been in the 72 hours since her husband’s heart attack. But then hadn’t she been a wreck, trying to fashion Stephen’s eulogy with a too-young rabbi hired by the funeral home; a shivering mess at the graveside funeral, the damp seeping through her boots; and finally, everything in her grinding into silence amidst the clinking of silverware in the restaurant afterwards. Or how about the breath she’d lost forever, hugging her youngest grandchild, her Suzy, in the airport before Lonnie found them? “Our plane’s at the gate, we have to go, Mom. You’ll be okay? I love you.” When would she hear anyone say, “I love you” again?
Now, surveying the dining room, she couldn’t guess how many would come, how long they might stay on this one shiva evening available before the sabbath. Of course it was the worst night to ask anyone to sit, Thanksgiving. People made elaborate plans to be with their families, to feel joyous and content with a full plate on this holiday; Esther worried about the timing, along with everything else.
When she’d finally slept last night, she’d had terrible dreams. She’d dreamt of going down into the grave with Stephen. “Don’t leave me,” she wept. “Let me lie with you here. Please.” “There’s no room,” he replied, his eyes crinkling with that familiar longing. “My bed is a single now, Esther, and so is yours.”
Yet this morning, tired as she was, she’d turned to the obituaries in the paper first thing, checking that they’d remembered to list Stephen’s name and their address and visitation times. A lecture on “The Intelligence of Listening” caught her eye, but articles on foreclosures and molestations, school test scores dropping, no, she couldn’t stomach the rest.
In that moment, Esther had a strange memory of her mother also reading the newspaper backwards from the obits, every morning. “And who today,” her mother would ask, “needs our prayers?” Oh, the Orthodox, they stopped morning, noon and night on these questions. On this day, how many simchas, how many yahrzeits? How many prayers? The prayers — Esther caught her breath. She needed to make sure they had enough people to say Kaddish.
Yesterday, after the restaurant meal, there had been men enough, Lonnie and a handful of Stephen’s uncles, that rabbi, for a minyan at the funeral home. But tonight, how many Jews might arrive by sunset for another prayer group, this last way the living might honor the deceased by raising their voices to the heavens in prayer? Ten, ten men minimum. Somehow, she would need ten good Jews to pray to God on Stephen’s behalf one more time.
First, she thought to call Congregation Sinai; then, a twinge of guilt. How many years had it been since they’d ended their membership? Twenty? Since Lonnie’s bar mitzvah, practically. Once Stephen retired, it settled the question; they no longer had the money.
But Stephen needed prayers tonight. And so don’t think about the propriety of it, get out the phone book, call.
Six rings, seven, then just as she was about to give up, a man she assumed was a janitor, cleaning at this hour, finally answered. Esther explained her problem. The man murmured, “A minyan? You’ll want men,” and gave her the phone number of the brotherhood president. Hanging up, Esther dared hoped all might yet work out.
But the second call was, well, not good. When she’d asked the brotherhood president to round up enough men to “guarantee a minyan, please,” the man had taken offense.
“I’d like to help you, but you’re not a member of our congregation, this is Thanksgiving. We’re not in the minyan business, you know,” he’d growled and hung up.
“We’re not in the minyan business.” That had hurt. “What kind of business should a temple brotherhood be in, then?” she’d wanted to retort, but hadn’t been able to get in a word. Maybe she shouldn’t have said that word, “guarantee”? She could be too demanding. Stephen often warned that people wouldn’t understand her style. But “We’re not in the minyan business” had hurt the other way, she wanted to cry. Those words had made her even more desperate for guarantees, something.
Filled with panic, Esther’s glance fell back to the paper. The article again, the library speaker, Daniel Lieber. Hadn’t Lonnie known a boy with the name Danny Lieber, in temple youth group years earlier? The paper identified him as a local business consultant. Maybe he could help her. Maybe he knew other Jews in town.
Hardly considering the craziness, the chutzpah, she paged through the phone book for Lieber, called.
“Hello?” His voice on the line sounded kind, but curious. Who would call on a holiday?
“Hello, is this Daniel Lieber? Daniel, who used to be with Congregation Sinai Youth Group, oh, years ago?” “Yes?”
Now she couldn’t help herself. The tears came up through her lips, her words, just like the wetness had crawled into her boots yesterday. “This is Esther Storr. My son, Lonnie, was your friend. You used to go to the movies together on weekends, I chauffeured you there and back. I’m Lonnie’s mother.”
“Yes, yes, Mrs. Storr. I remember you.” She breathed out in relief, the voice was still kind. “I’m surprised to hear, but — what can I do for you?”
And her story rushed out, the last 72 hours. Of how her husband had died, how Lonnie and his family had been in for the funeral, of course, but had to take a plane out last night, tough to get seats on the holidays. And now she was alone, you see, and frantic she wouldn’t have enough men for a proper minyan at shiva. Of course, they knew many people, friends, but not as many Jews as when Lonnie was growing up, well, he could understand? So might he stop by at sunset, five o’clock tonight, for a few minutes? Help make the prayers?
“I-?” this man said back to her, but the word was a question, not an agreement, not yet. “I-Please hold on, Mrs. Storr.”
Esther heard the crackle of his hand over the receiver, a muffle of words, presumably to a wife or children. And yes, dinner may be a bit earlier or later this year. But this is what we’ve done on Thanksgiving since the Pilgrims, we help our neighbors… . She was saying these words to herself anyway, her lips moving silently against her own receiver.
Another crackle before Daniel Lieber came back on the line. “What’s your address, Mrs. Storr? We’re having company tonight. But if I can get away, I will.”
“I’d be grateful,” Esther said, feigning calm. Only after she’d given her address and hung up the phone, did she try to convince herself she hadn’t lost too much dignity in this call. So that was one. Somehow she had to find nine more, but who? Who, she wondered, looking past the kitchen into her dining room, would choose brisket over turkey for their Thanksgiving meal?
By three thirty, she couldn’t bear the drowning sensation of preparing everything in lonely silence and put on the radio. Was it a sin to turn on the radio for company during mourning? Esther didn’t have the courage to find out.
Hosts were pledging for some kind of food organization. And a caller came on the air to say, “Yes, Oxfam is one of the best, please give. When everyone else was too busy last year, Oxfam was there for me. It’s not that people are thoughtless,” he’d said in such an odd turn of phrase that Esther, folding table napkins, stopped to listen with care, “It’s just they get busy and forget about people like us. So then we fall through the cracks even more.”
It’s just they get busy and forget about people like us. Esther gave another glance at the clock. It was nearly four. But the notice was in the paper, calls had been made. What else could she do? If they were going to come out for anyone, she assured herself, it would be Stephen. Didn’t he love people and didn’t they love him back? Even if the company had changed hands since he’d retired, and most local acquaintances were snowbirds… . People would come. “Are you settled in yet, Stephen?” she said loudly, trying to make a joke for someone’s benefit, his? “If so, can you help me along?” Her last task before people arrived, she had to dress. She went upstairs to their bedroom and opened their closets. A sweet smell of balsam cologne came up from Stephen’s clothes to remind her of, well, everything. She supposed she could give them to Goodwill. Her glance fell farther; but not the shoes. The Jewish superstition made sense: do not pass shoes onto a living man or he might risk treading a dead man’s path. Even without this prohibition, Esther guessed she’d be reluctant to part with her husband’s gleaming leathers. It had been her job to shine his shoes, six pairs’ worth, and she’d come to love the task. The biting smell of polish, the rough brush strap cutting into knuckles. Plus, this bit of effort kept her and Stephen, like the shoelaces themselves, laced and knotted, carrying on. Grateful, he would pour her a glass of wine at the kitchen table afterwards, then they’d sit, happily discuss his travel plans for the workweek ahead.
Now Stephen had taken his last trip, someone else had polished shoes for his lying-down. Now she was alone, her own best dress ready to be worn, and nothing more to do after these jobs. Nothing.
Suddenly Esther felt pain near her heart, a jab that sawed. It wasn’t the terrible kind of pain that stole Stephen, but still, it frightened. That same sensations had come up on her at the restaurant yesterday, she realized. It had to be Stephen. Once by her side, now he’d come, literally, to rest inside.
Trying to ignore what came and went so fitfully, she gave her energies to putting on the simple black dress. When she leaned in to close the closet, she rested her left cheek upon the door’s smooth planking and in this quiet, found herself feeling very tired all at once… .
But then she heard the doorbell ring. People had come. It was time.
Esther opened her door to discover flakes of snow swirling and a young, bearded man wearing a parka, carrying a guitar case, on her steps. Under the light, Esther noticed he also wore a yarmulke.
Is this Daniel Lieber? she thought. But he looks younger than Lonnie.
The man smiled. “Mrs. Storr? I’m Rabbi Brummel, an associate rabbi at Sinai. You called the temple this morning, we spoke?”
“Please come in,” Esther replied, startled, and stepped back in the hallway. “I, I’m just waiting for the others.”
“Well, then,” the stranger said, setting his guitar case down in the hall. “I’ll be the first.”
Esther nodded, but even as she moved to close the door, another voice called to her, “Wait!”
A second man was running up her walkway, wearing a corduroy jacket and red sweater underneath, gray pants, black boots. His face could hardly be glimpsed past a purple scarf covering his head. He came into the house, blowing on his bare hands.
“Mrs. Storr? I’m Daniel Lieber. I’m sorry I couldn’t get here sooner, couldn’t round up some others.”
“Come in, come in,” Esther murmured. Two men, more than she’d dared hope for this morning. But that meant how many more were needed? Seven? Eight?
In Esther’s front hall, the three strangers shared shy, but curious glances, the same given over on elevators, blind dates, busy streets. Esther felt this, and so spoke quickly, to change the mood.
“Can I get you some coffee, tea?”
“No, I’m fine,” Daniel said, stomping his wet soles against her rug. He unwrapped his scarf, revealed a fine head of hair, but didn’t remove his boots.
The rabbi unzipped his parka. Underneath, Esther was glad to see, a tallis bag.
“Would you like something to eat?” she offered. “There’s plenty.”
The two men exchanged looks again, Esther was sure of it.
“I ate earlier,” Daniel murmured.
“Well, of course,” she said in automatic response. But then she thought it too; of course he’s eaten.
She glanced away from the two men to her dining room, the long table stacked with brisket, rolls, vegetable platters, hot and cold. The entire buffet appeared to her busier, sloppier, somehow ridiculous in its largesse as she scrutinized it not with her usual eye for details, but as strangers might, entering her home for the first time.
How stupid, she thought. Why had she imagined anyone would be hungry on Thanksgiving eve?
She blinked to focus, turned back.
“It’s nearly sunset,” Rabbi Brummel said, cocking his head to the now-closed front door.
“Oh?” Esther struggled as she tried to think this through. “But there’s not enough for a minyan. Can we wait a few minutes?”
“I’m afraid we can’t push back a sunset, no.”
“Please.” Esther’s hand fell to her side. Her hand opened to grasp at something, she didn’t know what. The rabbi cleared his throat.
“Maybe,” he said, “We won’t do the Mourner’s Kaddish. But together, we can still honor your husband. There are other prayers. Stephen, I believe you said, was his name?”
When she nodded, he smiled, pulled from his jacket prayer pamphlets and handed one to Daniel Lieber. As Daniel opened a page, started to read, Esther realized she should probably lead them to the living room. No matter what she wanted, they had come to say prayers. It was time.
In front of the fireplace, under the ceiling lights, the men bowed their heads and began, “El mo-ley ra-cha-mim, sho-chain ba-m’ro-mim, ha-m’tzey m’nu-cho.”
As best she could, Esther tried to follow along. But she had not bothered with the ancient melodies for years, and her memory for chants was failing her; also, it seemed, she had failed with a Shiva set out for, what, only three people, after all. Three. Oh Stephen, I’m sorry.
“Ne-cho-nah tachas kan-fey hash-chi-no.”
She’d failed because she was so tired, tired. She had worked, oh, for all these days. Ordered food, made phone calls, talked to the lawyers, doctors. Yet she hadn’t minded any of it. Would cook a feast, clean a house, why, she would’ve grabbed a shovel and joined those diggers yesterday if they’d asked; anything, anything, to bring her husband where he needed to be. I’m sorry, Stephen.
For some reason, the rabbi was speaking to her, had interrupted his praying.
“Did I — was I not chanting correctly? Oh, I’m sorry. Please. Go on.” She bit her lip, laced her fingers, to stop shaking she couldn’t control.
“You have no reason to be sorry.”
“There’s only us.”
“Not a problem.”
“But — I don’t know how to do this.”
The rabbi leaned in until she could glimpse the fierce green light in his pupils. “No one does. Yet you’ve done well. Anyone can see how hard you’ve worked for his sake, Mrs. Storr,”
He paused, and to his gently probing glance, she finally gave in, volunteered, “Esther.”
“Esther.All you could do for Stephen, you’ve done in beautiful ways. You haven’t let him down.” The rabbi reached out, touched her left hand, the ring finger. “Now. May we help you?”
Esther could barely muster a response to convey the gratitude she felt around such kindness. All she could manage was a nod. Still, the rabbi smiled as if he had received a gift. Into her open palm, he slipped a prayer pamphlet, then motioned for Daniel Lieber to step alongside.
“El Moley Rachamim—God full of mercy,” he whispered. As the two men bowed a second time, Esther unfolded the booklet with trembling hands, spied a section offering up transliterations.
“Be-maal-os k’do-shim ut’ho-rim…,” she read out loud. And not quite in harmony, yet held fast by the rabbi’s strong tenor, three small voices joined. To lift prayers to the beamed ceilings of this house, the straddling sky, then, even farther.
Michele Merens is a Milwaukee-based writer and playwright.