Who Was Wise
Winner of the Lilith 2003 Fiction Contest
The time I saw Grandpa before, he could still tell long, complicated jokes full of Yiddish words, with punch lines I didn’t always get. Now he sits grayly in a leather recliner, more asleep than awake, letting his four daughters handle everything. From my nook by the photograph Album bookcase, I can see into the kitchen, a room almost as big as the living room and dining room combined. Aunt Miriam has brought everyone together for a first night seder, but, as Abba says, she has a hidden agenda.
My mother mixes mashed potatoes with schmaltz to make the knishes that our family won’t eat. Aunt Nettie is cutting radish roses, the same color as her glossy fingernails. Her thigh high skirt flaunts every womanly curve, so that I feel an uncomfortable flush creep from between my legs, over my growing breasts and up my neck to my cheeks. Aunt Ruthie, the retarded one—the thirty-six-year-old child Grandpa cannot longer care for—polishes a set of real silver, counting and re-counting each pile of knives and forks and spoons.
Aunt Miriam pushes a curl of unruly Zimmerman hair under her Team USA Olympics headband and calls me into action.”Elisheva, get your buns in here and help Ruthie with the silver”
“Mimi!” says my mother. “Your language!”
“Don’t be such a prude, Sara,” says Aunt Nettie. “She could have said ass.” She gives me a wicked smile as I slouch into the room.
My father has kept himself as far away from the provocative women as possible. He’s sequestered in a back bedroom, the one the two younger sisters once shared, studying a volume of Talmud he brought for the occasion. In this secular household his curly payess, black Hassidic suit and tzitzis fringes make him seem like a visitor from outer space. As soon as we walked in the door, I felt our New York relatives freeze. The way I figure it, their life would have been mine if Ima hadn’t gone religious on her family. It’s hard to tell which side is more afraid of the other.
The other man in the house. Aunt Nettie’s husband, Ethan, stands with the door of the old-fashioned refrigerator wide open, fingering this and that. Aunt Miriam asks rather sharply what he’s looking for, and he pulls a metal ice tray from the tiny freezer compartment on top. “You’re gonna have to teach me all this Jewish stuff,” he says as he pulls the handle on the ice tray and drops two cubes in a glass of scotch. “I mean, I know we’re not supposed to eat pork or cross ourselves. I know we’re supposed to support Israel against the Arabs, although frankly I’m beginning to have my doubts about some of that, but I think this is my first seder.”
“You don’t have Pesach?” says my mother.
“We hardly did when we were kids,” says Nettie, as if she knows the criticism is aimed at her. “What? Once or twice with Mom’s folks, once at a community seder for kids. After Ruthie was born…”
She leaves the thought unfinished. Ruthie looks up, smile sand repeats, “After Ruthie was born.” She’s overweight and has bad teeth, but you wouldn’t know she was retarded to look at her. My grandparents didn’t realize anything was wrong until she was almost four. I wonder if that’s when my mother started getting more religious. She places one hand lightly on her belly. Her sisters don’t suspect this sixth pregnancy, that she’s hidden so well under a modest loose dress. I was so excited when I guessed her secret.
Nettie places her radish roses in a cut-glass dish and turns to wash scallions for karpas. “Really, I don’t know why you’re bothering with all this seder stuff, Mimi,” she says. “We all know we’re really here to decide what to do with Dad and…”This time she merely rolls her eyes at Ruthie.
“I like Passover,” says Aunt Miriam. “The grand theme of freedom and justice for the whole world.” She works as a lawyer in the Public Defender’s office. I found a college picture of her in one of Grandma’s photo albums, arm-in-arm with a bunch of hippie types.
“This is because of what the Lord did for me when I went free from Egypt,” quotes my mother, to remind her sisters that we’re talking a religious holiday here, not a political love-in.
“It’s all too sexist for mc,” says Nettie. “I can’t believe those old Maxwell House haggadahs Mimi’s dredged up. Our forefathers.The four sons. Moses and his foreskin.“
Uncle Ethan chokes on his drink, and Nettie winks at me. Igiggle in spite of myself at the foreskin joke, which makes my mother glare. Suddenly I realize that right in this kitchen we’ve got the four sons—excuse me, the four children, the four .Jews.Ima, the wise child, who wants the whole exact ritual down to the afikomen; Uncle Ethan, the simple one, who needs it all explained; problematical Ruthie, who has no capacity to inquire but who stands at center stage, and Nettie, the wicked one, who doesn’t see what any of this has to do with her.
Our Moses, Aunt Miriam, who called me into the kitchen in the first place, now sends me out again. “Do something with Ruthie, will you, Ellie?” she says. “We’ve got some business to discuss here.” Like Em too young to take part it is the heavy decisions.
“Dad tried that last year She was miserable and begged tobe taken home every time he visited. It took months to get rid of the head lice she caught there.” This is Miriam, who has been checking in on them three times a week ever since.
My mother tries using guilt as her tactic. “Nettie’s the only one who isn’t working.”
Nettie stamps one high heel on the kitchen linoleum. “Don’t even go there. Just because I don’t have a paying job doesn’t mean I’m not busy every single minute of the week.” She ticks off responsibilities on her red nails—Ethan’s business entertaining, tennis doubles three times a week, low-impact aerobics twice, a kitchen remodelling project and fund raising for three charities.
“What could be more charitable than caring for your own sister?” says my ima.
“Take her back to L.A. with you, then,” says Nettie.
Everyone falls silent for a minute. My stomach knots up. With Ima running a Jewish bookstore, and Abba at the rebbe’s half the time, how could that possibly work?
My mother says, “It would mean separating her from Dad.”
“Maybe we could move him out there, too,” Miriam suggests. Does she think we should gladly bear this burden because we’re the most religious?
I want to run in the kitchen and shout, “We’ve got a baby coming. There’s no room for other people.” But, even though my mother drives me crazy with her constant nagging and prohibition son the one hand, and how quietly she accepts everything my father demands from her on the other, I know then ews of her pregnancy is her secret not mine.
The outside door opens to let in a blast of fresh air as red cheeked Uncle Ethan calls out, “Smells great in here, ladies. When do we eat?”
The seder goes on until almost nine at night. My family eats on paper plates the food we brought from L.A. I fought with my mother over that. “Is it better to be a stickler for every little rule or to consider the feelings of Aunt Miriam, who will probably make kosher as best she can?”
“It’s not up to us to pick and choose the rules we want to follow,”she said.
Here’s my question for God: Why not, if You gave us brains?
Aunt Miriam leads an abbreviated ceremony in English while my abba races sotto voce in Hebrew through his own haggadah. Ruthie’s eyes close and her chin slips down several times before she gets to sell back the afikomen. Uncle Ethan asks if turkey for dinner means he can’t have cream in his coffee.
He offers to help with the dishes. So do I, but the women don’t want us in their kitchen. I imagine this is because they’ll pick up their argument about Ruthie, but when I wander pastthe door after brushing my teeth, I’m surprised to hear them talking about me.
“She’s a really nice girl,” says Aunt Miriam.
“If you only laiew,” answers my mother with a sigh. ‘”Of all my children, she’s the only one who can’t accept anything atface value.”
Miriam rinses soap from an antique porcelain dish.”That’s because she’s the smartest. Don’t you remember how we were at that age? Trying to find the meaning of life?”
“Hell, yes,” says Aunt Nettie. “Why else would Sara run off to join the ffassidim?”
“It was the sixties,” Miriam answers. “You found the Rolling Stones and she found God.”
“What did you find?” my mother asks her, but Miriam doesn’t answer. Instead she says, “It’s going to be hard on Ellie if your latest turns out to be like Ruthie.”
I feel a cold hand at my throat. If I’m so smart, how come 1hadn’t thought of that? Would God do that twice to our family?No wonder Ima held back the news from her sisters. I slump against the wall, which creaks like an old floor
Aunt Miriam calls out, “Come in, if you’re going to skulk about in doorways,”
“Did she tell you about the baby?” asks my mother.
“Of course not,” says her older sister. “You always get those dark circles under your eyes when you’re pregnant.”
I don’t want them to send me away again, but I have to ask.”Mom, how old were you when Ruthie was born?”
Nettie answers for her. “Thirteen, honey, just like you. 1 was only ten, and believe me in those days it was something to have a retarded sister. 1 should have a nickel for every kid 1 punched. Lucky Mimi got to go off to college and leave us to deal with the mess. And she’s still trying to push it off on us.”
My mother starts to cry. I put my arms around her waist. “It won’t happen,” I say. “I know the baby will be O.K.” Then I realize she’s crying for Grandpa and Ruthie, too. Pesach is supposed to be a time of hope and renewal. This one is turning into a major downer
Aunt Miriam protests that she would gladly quit her job to care for Ruthie and Grandpa, but they need her income to pay the property taxes. I always thought my grandparents were rich,because they hung velvet drapes at the windows, but now I realize that the house seems half the size it did when I was a kid, the ceiling plaster is cracked and blackened and the carpet is rubbed bare between the sofa and the TV
Uncle Ethan and Abba have been talking together in the living room since “Next year in Jerusalem”. Now they join us in the steamy kitchen. My uncle snags a piece of cold turkey from the gold-edged platter My father says, “We’ve decided it’s best if they come back to California with us. We can hire a day nurse while Sara is downstairs in the bookstore.”
Aunt Miriam sighs loudly in relief Aunt Nettie says, “I should think Sara would have something to say about that.”
Everyone looks at my mother She takes a long minute before answering no. I can’t believe I’ve just heard her disagree with my father.
He frowns and turns her refusal into a question. “No, Sara?”
“Yes, they can come to California with us,” she says, “butonly to the Jewish home on Crenshaw. It’s a good place. We’ll visit them, watch out for their care.” She rests her hands on her belly and adds, “I can’t take them in my house. I can only do so much.”
“You tell them!” says Nettie.
“You tell them!” Ruthie echoes from the dining room,where she is pushing a carpet sweeper around and under the table. She doesn’t know her fate has been decided.
“How will we pay for the home?” asks my father.
“We’ll sell this house.”
They ask me to help Ruthie to bed. We both kiss Grandpa goodnight where he sits in front of the TV news. There’s been another bombing in Jerusalem. “What does God want?” he asks me.
“I wish I knew. Grandpa.”
While I make sure Ruthie uses the toilet, I listen to the kitchen voices. Aunt Nettie says Ruthie should be able to adjust to a home if Grandpa is by her side. Aunt Miriam says, “May be we can come out to your place next year You can show us how to do Pesach right.” My mother says she’d like that.
I tuck in my aunt and her furless teddy bear. “Good night, you two. Next year in Los Angeles.”
“Next year in Los Angeles,” Ruthie echoes.
Diana Cohen Conway is the author of the picture book Northern Lights: A Hanukkah Story (Kar-Ben). She taught Spanish at Anchorage Community College for 20 years and now lives on an island in Kachemak Bay, Alaska, where she gardens, fishes for king salmon and writes stories for children’s magazines.