This story is going to link together the story of NekhaÕs funeral, and the stories about everyone leaving Ivanik, with MiriamÕs motherÕs depression about being left behind – maybe in her voice

Gone[i]

By

Roberta Newman

 

 

            If I hadnÕt gotten married, I wouldnÕt be the one standing here cooking kreplakh, meat dumplings, on the day of our sister-in-lawÕs funeral—it would be you. And IÕd be in New York, still unaware of her death, sitting in my luxurious apartment and wearing silk stockings.

But the part about the silk stockings might just be my fantasy. Perhaps it isnÕt that way at all, just a show you put on in the photographs you send. Maybe youÕre also in a hot kitchen making kreplakh, with tendrils of your hair sticking to the back of your neck, a stain blooming on the apron youÕve strapped on over your best dress, deep in your thoughts. Your husband sitting at the table in his suspenders reading a newspaper, slapping at a fly that has landed on his hairy shoulder. Perhaps my impression that your life is so different from mine is mistaken and IÕm wrong about it being full of the soft comfort of expensive rugs. But in my imagination the hands on your wristwatch prance lightly through the hours instead of trudging along, wearing a groove in the face of the clock, as they seem to do here, in Poland.

I wonder, do you feel guilty? Do you ever wonder to yourself whether you are living my life and I, yours? But why should you feel guilty? After all, it was entirely my decision to give you my passport and my visa number and to stay behind to marry Mikhl, giving up my chance to go to America. Now there are two people in the world called Rifka Posenitsky, at least on paper. You might have to go on using my name forever, since thatÕs the name under which you entered America.

*

All day, since early morning, the children have been straining to hear what weÕre whispering about, but we shoo them away. They arenÕt to know that Nekha committed suicide; in fact, itÕs a secret from everyone but close family. IÕm not even going to write it to you, forgive me, because who knows who might end up seeing the letter? Words, once written down, remain for all eternity.

But Miriam, my oldest daughter, was suspicious when I told her that her aunt had had a heart attack. ÒWas Aunt Nekha sick?Ó she asked, her eyes wide with alarm, ÒI didnÕt even know.Ó

ÒNekha, poor thing,Ó I told her, Òhad a weak heart and was taking medicine, but unfortunately, it didnÕt work.Ó I didnÕt tell her that the medicines were for NekhaÕs nerves and that sheÕd killed herself by taking a whole bottle of sleeping pills.

Maybe you remember how Nekha, our dear sister-in-law, liked to sniffle and whine. Spending time with her was an ordeal for me. She carried on about what, after all, are just ordinary inconveniences, no different from what everyone has to suffer through. My children avoided her as much as possible—she was also a screamer and a slapper. But her suicide was a shock. Our brother Yankl fainted at the grave site. We knew she was unhappy but she gave no warning, no hint that she was going to do this terrible thing.

Now IÕm carrying a bowl of kreplakh to YanklÕs house, where I will be spending a lot of time in the near future. I walk carefully over the dry mud of the rutted road and try not to drop the dish. With its white napkin, it looks like a shrouded corpse, and I am suddenly nauseated. IÕll have two households to run now, because our brotherÕs house will be without a woman. Our niece Shterna is lost somewhere in red Russia, and no one knows even how to get in touch with her to tell her that her mother is dead.

By the time I get there, YanklÕs three-room house is already crowded, and as the evening wears on, it seems as if nearly the entire adult population of Ivanik has made a point of coming to pay their respects, to visit Yankl on this first night of the shiva, the seven days of mourning. The widower is seated on a low wooden stool, barefoot, looking shattered, dazed, the lapels of his shirt and jacket slit. Do Jews still do this in America or have they adopted some more modern way of mourning?

I stop to put the kreplakh down on the table in the corner of the room near the hard-boiled eggs and bread and other food left over from the meal after the funeral. Then I stoop to kiss our brother. His dark stubble scratches my cheek and he begins to cry a little. But almost immediately, he turns away, pulls out a handkerchief, and wipes his nose. How strange that this white scrap of cloth, which Nekha may have laundered only a few days earlier, has survived her.

Young children run in and out, and older children sit outside on the bench, talking. TheyÕre supposed to look after their younger siblings, but small boys and girls keep bursting into the room, begging cookies or angrily and loudly denouncing their big sisters for all sorts of injustices. The littlest ones canÕt even grasp the idea that someone has died. When one of the adults bursts into tears, they stop and stare, full of wonder, their mouths open to ask a question that never gets a chance to form, because their mothers hurriedly shush them and order them to go back outside.

Prayer books are opened and the men pray. A few women sit on the fringes of the praying men and follow along in their prayer books, but most of them bustle around helping me fetch things from the kitchen, or stay at the far end of the room, nibbling on seeds and nuts, trading memories of Nekha.

ÒDo you remember the time,Ó cousin Shifra says, Òshe and her friend Bluma ran away with the actors? Her mother cried so hard she almost died and her father swore that Nekha was dead to him. He threatened to shit shiva for her.Ó

            I was about RokhlÕs age, four, and you were only about two when Nekha and her friend Bluma ran off with a group of traveling actors from Odessa. ÒThen she came home, skin and bones, almost starved, and fell on her knees before her parents,Ó Shifra continues. ÒShe cried and in the end they forgave her.Ó

            ÒI never did understand how they made a match for her,Ó Feygl muses. ÒHow was it that disgrace did not attach to the whole family and why did aunt and uncle agree to marry Yankl to such a girl?Ó

            ÒShhhha!Ó Shifra pushes at her sisterÕs knee with her hand, giving me a quick glance, ÒdonÕt speak ill of the dead!Ó You may remember that Feygl, not the brightest woman in the world, canÕt restrain herself from speaking out loud whatever comes into her head, no matter how rude or inappropriate.

A neighbor hastily changes the topic of conversation to worry about how Yankl will manage. Already, in their minds, the women are going through all the widows they know and matchmaking, though for decencyÕs sake, they will wait at least a month before they start besieging Yankl with prospects. Selfishly, I hope that Yankl remarries right away. I am tired enough from managing my own household. If our home was big enough, I would urge him to close up his house and move in with us. It would be easier.

            The women are moving on now to reminisce about others who have died. They tick off dozens of names on their fingers: women who have died in childbirth, women who have died in epidemics, and those who have simply expired from old age. ÒShe died before her time,Ó they sigh frequently, and I think about some of the fancier tombstones I once saw in the big Jewish cemetery in Pinsk, carved to resemble trees with branches lopped off. The women go on and on, and I think to myself that the names of the dead seem to equal or maybe even surpass the number of living people here now. And they havenÕt even mentioned the names of dead men or of all the babies and little children who have also Òdied before their time.Ó

            Now the women begin to speak of other departed souls, but these are different—they're alive, like you. Yours is one of the names that floats into the room, along with the names of others who have gone to America or to Warsaw; to Vilna, Berlin, Paris, Vienna, and even Palestine. You all went away, with your parentsÕ blessings, though as they saw you off at the railway station, they wept as if you too had died.

            I stop paying attention and begin to daydream, imagining myself on a train, standing at the window and watching Mikhl and the children growing smaller and smaller as the station recedes into the distance. IÕve never been on a train but in a postcard from Bremen you wrote me about this, about all of us getting smaller and smaller as your train sped away. You said that for the rest of your journey you had nightmares about being on a train that raced upwards, towards the sky, instead of across the landscape, and that you watched the world recede beneath you as you rushed toward the stars.

*

Today, a letter came from you, the first one after a long hiatus. For the first six months after Nekha died, I heard from you more frequently than usual. You were worried about Yankl and your letters were reproachful—you seemed to insinuate that I wasnÕt seeing to our brotherÕs needs with a warm and willing heart, that I was the old Rifka you once knew, a selfish young woman who grumbled sullenly whenever she had to take care of anyone and who thought of nothing else except how she was going to leave home and go live in a big city and make a lot of money. And who then stamped her feet stubbornly and insisted on marrying Mikhl, our union leader in the plywood factory, instead of going to America. Mother cried but I refused to leave, refused to take the visa that Cousin Itsl had worked so hard to get for me, and thatÕs how you ended up becoming me and leaving in my place.

You may be right about my selfishness, but all the same, I resent your tone. YouÕre not here to do any of the work, after all, though it's true that if you were, you would probably chirp with sweetness and light as you mopped YanklÕs floor and scrubbed his clothes on the washboard. You would work your fingers to the bone, work until you dropped, but say, ÒItÕs nothing, IÕm fine,Ó as you slid to the floor in a faint. You always were that way, even as a small child. After the letter in which I angrily wrote that we would rather have some money from you instead of advice, I didnÕt hear from you for a while and I didnÕt write to you either, though I made sure that Yankl included friendly greetings from us in the letters he sent you. From your letters to him, I learned that you were pregnant.

Now, you and your husband have written to announce the birth of your third child, who you have named Nelly, after Nekha. The birth was difficult, but both you and the child are doing fine now, you write. That you havenÕt died in childbirth is a great relief to me, believe me, despite the chilliness in our relations this past year. In the back of my mind, I was worried.

My children are excited to hear that they have another little cousin. As usual, they sigh about how sad it is that they canÕt play with your children. ÒDoes she write anything about Yudis, about Dovid?Ó they ask. For them, your children are like characters in a fairy tale. They moon for hours over the photographs of ÒJudyÓ and ÒDavyÓ that youÕve sent, discussing their sumptuous clothes, and gleaming, patent leather shoes, and tracing JudyÕs meticulously curled ringlets with their fingers. I have no idea how to curl a childÕs hair like that and theyÕve never had patent leather shoes. Even their best shoes quickly become ruined from all the mud on our unpaved streets. Mikhl and I have considered writing to you and asking you to send clothing for the girls but we are both embarrassed to come right out and do this; perhaps, we say, we should wait until we are really in need, for instance, when the time comes that we need to marry off Miriam, our oldest.

IÕm sure Yankl will write to you about our other big news, which, to tell the truth, has overshadowed the announcement of the birth of your Nelly: our niece Shterna has come back. Suddenly, without warning. You remember Shterna, of course. She was barely a teenager when you left. When she disappeared in 1919, we got a postcard from her in Russia, and that was it, we never heard from her again. Anyway, a few days ago, we woke up and there she was in YanklÕs kitchen. Her presence was a secret—that is, everyone in town knew she was there, but we were supposed to keep it quiet, to try not to let it get to the authorities that someone had slipped over the border from Russia in the dead of night.

When I saw her that first morning, I was shocked at how much sheÕs aged in the fifteen years sheÕs been gone. Only thirty-two, but sheÕs tired-looking, with shadows under her eyes and red, thin-skinned hands. Remember how pretty she once was? Her lips are still plump and she doesnÕt have any gray hairs, but her short, mannish hairstyle, ugly lace-up shoes, and baggy cardigan make her look fat, like a middle-aged woman. One of her front teeth is chipped now, too. She had to flee, Shterna tells us, because of her husband. He was arrested and she was afraid of what they would make him say in prison, what lies about her that he would be forced to tell. She had to go right away, with only a small suitcase.

Tonight, we go over to visit again, as we have done every night since her return. Mikhl asks her about what is really going on there over the border. Is it true that there is famine? A year ago, we read in the papers that peasants were sneaking over the border into Poland, saying that everyone was starving there. Shterna nods her head; her husband worked in the agricultural ministry. ÒIn Moscow, they try to hide it from us, but in other cities, peasants were coming at night, banging on doors to beg for food. Maxim would whisper to me these things when he came home at night.Ó

            Whisper to me these things. Her Yiddish is strange, slightly garbled, as if she hasnÕt spoken the language for a while. Once in a while, she says something in Russian. I know some of the Russian words she uses, but others are unfamiliar. She seems to have forgotten many Yiddish words. Like you: Mikhl jokes that your letters are English lessons, full of words like ÒjobÓ and Òstore.Ó Are these things really so different over there or have you forgotten the Yiddish words for them? And there are some words in your letters that we canÕt even figure out at all.

Of course, weÕve heard that things arenÕt going very well in the Soviet Union but weÕve also wondered if itÕs a lie. ItÕs hard to know what to believe. ShternaÕs furtive looks make me wonder if thereÕs something that she isnÕt telling us. She looks around the room as if itÕs a treacherous place, where anything might happen, where something unexpected might suddenly emerge from the walls.

But Yankl is beside himself with joy, is no longer the caved-in man heÕs been since NekhaÕs death. ÒThe red beast has vomited up my daughter,Ó he says. ÒSheÕs been delivered from evil, like Jonah from the mouth of the whale! God has given me this gift to make up for at least some of my suffering.Ó

I canÕt help thinking about how much easier things will be for me now that Shterna is back to keep house for her father. If only she stays for good. But I also find this new, beaten-down Shterna very disturbing. The old Shterna is gone—and there is only this new stranger. I am worried that if I see you again, it will be the same way. Right now, there are two of you in my head: my little sister, and also the new, older woman in the photographs you send, who sits there creamy-skinned, without moving, like a statue. I donÕt want to lose either of you.

*

Today, Shterna and I are going to visit her motherÕs grave. The sun is shining and wildflowers line the road to the cemetery. ItÕs a beautiful day and the wind wafts the fresh smell of greenness and soil from the fields that surround us. They predict that the harvest will be good this year.

Despite our destination, IÕm in a good mood. ItÕs one of those days when I tell myself that I have enough, that my life is full, and that IÕm blessed. This morning, my youngest daughter Rokhl amused us all by saying that when she grows up she will agree to marry only Zindl, the cat. When Mikhl asked her how the cat would stand with her under the wedding canopy and stamp on the glass, she thought a minute and said, ÒHe can ride on a horse and the horse will smash the glass with his hoof.Ó We all had a good time laughing and even Rokhl joined in, smart enough at four years old to realize that she had made a joke.

Shterna too seems more relaxed today. She chats to me about how nothing much has changed in Ivanik since sheÕs been gone and points out some of her favorite childhood places as we pass them by.

When we get to the gate of the cemetery, we stop talking for a while. Here it is, the place where we will all end up. But not you. You wonÕt be buried here with the rest of us, near our mother and father, near Nekha and Yankl and me. YouÕll be all alone in some strange cemetery and I wonÕt be able to visit your grave.

I lead Shterna to the area of the new graves, a pleasant spot under a shady alder tree. Her motherÕs tombstone hasnÕt been up for long and itÕs still smooth and clean, painted in sober black and white. The words chiseled into it are deeply incised, like a desperate attempt to infuse new life into the dead. But no matter how determinedly the stone-mason carves, no one ever returns from the other world.

Other world, new world. Once in a while, someone does come back, from the new world, if not from the other world. Perhaps you will come back one day for a visit, bringing gifts for all of us and showing off your expensive clothes. IÕll get to meet your husband and your children, who will screw up their noses at the smell of mud, chicken shit, and everything else, like the other American children who have come back to visit with their parents. They will be incredulous and frightened at the sight of the outhouse and you will explain that they are used only to water closets, indoor toilets. Your visit will be an interruption, an irregularity, like a broken gear on a wheel that makes machinery work. Time will stop when you are here, and resume when you leave again and go back to your new world.

            I am thinking about this as Shterna kneels at her motherÕs grave. I bend down and put my arms around her, like an aunt should. But she shakes off my arm and twists to pull out a weed that has begun to curl up the side of the stone. ÒWhy didnÕt you get my mother some help?Ó she asks me reproachfully. ÒEven here in Poland you have mental hospitals, psychoanalysts. Or you could have sent her to Vienna.Ó

            I try not to laugh. With what money? Shterna has been away too long and doesnÕt realize what a small and unsophisticated place this is, how hard things are here. I donÕt think you really grasp it either. You write about how you have to Òpinch penniesÓ because of the ÒDepressionÓ but your husband owns his own butcher store and people still have to eat, donÕt they? Here, people have stopped building, stopped ordering furniture, and so MikhlÕs carpentry commissions are few and far between.

ÒShterna,Ó I say to her. ÒWe didnÕt know how unhappy your mother was, not really. The doctor from Pinsk said it was only nerves and prescribed sedatives. If we had known, we would have tried to stop her from killing herself.Ó

I donÕt ask her why she hadnÕt been in touch with her family for so many years but she reads my mind. ÒMama wanted me to go; she told me that I had her blessing to leave with Maxim. And I couldnÕt come back or even write because it would have gotten us into trouble.Ó

            She sighs and stands up. ÒMy whole life has been a wrong turn. And here we are, both me and my mother, back in these marshes where we were born. Failures.Ó

ÒAt least you tried,Ó I said. You tried to escape, I meant to say to her, wondering if she will understand anyway, but she isnÕt listening to me, just stands quietly and looks off across the cemetery. Turning around, she looks me straight in the eyes and says,

ÒI have something to tell you—IÕm pregnant; three months already.Ó

And I donÕt say anything as we walk back to town, only slow my pace so as not to make a pregnant woman exert herself. But Shterna walks easily, with a dreamy look on her face. I know Yankl will be pleased to have a grandchild. And now Shterna won't leave. There will be no way she will be able to leave him and go off to a big city or somewhere else. And your Nelly will have a cousin here who is almost the same age.

*

ItÕs autumn again. Tomorrow, Miriam is leaving for nursing school in Warsaw. ItÕs quite an opportunity for her; weÕre very proud of her for qualifying for the scholarship, though she will also have to find work of some sort while she studies. In your last letter to me, you wrote that Yudis (Judy) is starting college, early at age sixteen, and that you hope she will become a teacher. YouÕre fortunate that your daughter can take the ÒsubwayÓ to school and will be able to live at home and help you with the baby.

WeÕre here in our kitchen, gathered together as a family for the last time: Mikhl and me, Miriam and Rokhl; Yankl and Shterna; and some of MiriamÕs friends. Shterna is very fat now but her face has lost that dry, papery look. She bakes and bakes and bakes and talks of opening a bakery in Pinsk after the baby is born. Where she learned to bake so well I donÕt know. Certainly not from me or Nekha. All the pastries on the table tonight are from ShternaÕs oven.

I know in my heart that Miriam is never coming back to live at home again, though Warsaw is close enough for her to visit us at least a couple of times a year. As I look at my oldest daughter across the table, I feel as if sheÕs already gone, as if sheÕs disappearing very quickly into the clouds, like in your dream. She looks at us with a sad, somewhat resentful look, as if we were the ones leaving her. In MikhlÕs and the two younger girlsÕ eyes, I see an odd hunger, as if they too would like to go away and have an adventure, but also as if theyÕre impatient, ready for Miriam to be gone so that they can get on with their lives, with the flow of days, with missing her or not missing her.

I look at Mikhl and marvel at how old he looks. I know that he probably thinks the same thing when he looks at me, but still, it makes me feel angry with him. He is no longer the dashing revolutionary he was when I promised my life to him—heÕs a skinny, middle-aged man with a slack stomach and wrinkles in the corners of his eyes. I blame him for this, and for the fact that now I'm a sour-faced woman with graying hair, though I know it isnÕt really his fault, or even mine. But it must be someoneÕs.

There is Miriam, my smart, pretty daughter, laughing with her girlfriends. SheÕs a fool, but itÕs not her fault. All young people are fools and she is no exception. I was a much bigger fool than her when I was her age.

*

In the morning, Mikhl and I ride into Pinsk to see Miriam off at the railway station. SheÕs taking that same train to Warsaw that you took when you left, the one that leaves in late morning, at 11:20. Miriam has her old blue wool coat slung over her arm and sheÕs wearing new shoes, with high chunky heels and tight straps across her insteps. Shterna and Yankl havenÕt come to see her off, but Shterna has baked a bag of poppy seed cookies and I've wrapped other food in napkins and packed them into MiriamÕs carpetbag.

Miriam embraces us before climbing up the steps and into the train and caresses the sleeve of my Sabbath dress, which is hemmed with velvet and comfortingly old and soft.

ÒWeÕll send you money to come home in a few months for a visit,Ó Mikhl tells her. ÒWrite to us when you arrive and about whether the room in the dormitory is warm enough.Ó He mimes dipping a pen in an inkwell and scribbling on a page and then nervously adjusts his cap.

When the train pulls out of the station, I wonder if weÕre growing small in MiriamÕs eyes; I try to picture us becoming tiny like the poppyseeds in ShternaÕs cookies. But I donÕt really know what we look like from a train speeding away.

ÒMay she never come back again,Ó I say.

My husband looks at me in astonishment, but then I see understanding come into his eyes, a flash of agreement between us. Then the tears come and he turns away, but before he does so, he seeks out my hand, and gently puts it into his pocket, and we stand there listening to the sound of the train growing fainter and fainter.

 

 

 

Women in Judaism: A Multidisciplinary Journal Winter 2010 Volume 7 Number 2

ISSN 1209-9392

© 2010 Women in Judaism, Inc.

 

All material in the journal is subject to copyright; copyright is held by the journal except where otherwise indicated. There is to be no reproduction or distribution of contents by any means without prior permission. Contents do not necessarily reflect the views of the editors.

 

 



[i] Women in Judaism First Annual Writing Competition, Third Place winner in Short Fiction.



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