The Disharmony of Silence
“The Roths aren’t coming.” Yes, those were the words her mother had just said. Lena’s heart sunk. She lowered her head, hiding her watery eyes, then gripped the edge of the lace tablecloth and gave it a tug as if she, an eleven-year-old, could change things.
“So that’s why we didn’t put the leaves in the table,” she said, looking across the mahogany dining room set to where her mother stood. “I don’t understand. They always come for seder.”
The early spring sun shone through the apartment window lending a sense of purity to the lace cloth. Ida straightened her side. “Bubeleh,” she said, “I’m sorry, but it’s only the three of us tonight.” She fiddled with her aprons straps, adjusting and re-adjusting them.
“You know, Mama, I don’t really care if Mrs. Roth comes. She’s such a sourpuss, but what about Jack?” Silently, Lena hoped there was some way fifteen-year-old Jack could still come.
Ida furrowed her brow, but Lena detected a slight giggle in her mother’s disapproval. Sure, her words were nasty, but, no matter how close the two families were, Mama knew Mrs. Roth always looked like she’d just sucked on a lemon.
“No, honey. None of them will be here.”
Lena sensed a deep sadness from her mother’s flat voice and could not understand what would have happened to make the Roths so angry. The two families had been close friends back in the old country and when Karl arrived in New York in 1905, without his family, he became part of theirs. Lena wasn’t quite two when she met the man she called Uncle Karl though she didn’t remember that. What did stay in her mind was his bouncing her on his knee and singing Oyfn Pripetchik. His hands always smelled like freshly ironed sheets.
Lena watched her mother walk to the breakfront and open the leaded glass cabinet, then slowly pull three white dinner plates from her Pesach set. Ida looked at the plates in her hand and frowned. “Papa said they had an argument over cards and Uncle Karl refused to come.” She put three soup dishes on top of the short pile, then shook her head and changed her tone. It was matter-of-fact rather than disappointed. “I called Rebecca – I mean Mrs. Roth; I know that’s what she wants you to call her – and tried to convince her to let bygones be bygones. She wouldn’t budge.”
“What’d they argue about?” Lena said, hoping it wasn’t serious and that maybe she could coerce her mother to call again. Lena wanted so much to sit next to Jack, to see his big brown eyes light up as they sang Dayenu together and all the other holiday songs. He made it so much fun.
“Papa didn’t say. All I know is it had something to do with the pinochle game.” Ida placed the dishes on the table. Keeping her eyes averted from her daughter’s, she adjusted the bow on her collar and centered the brooch.
Lena picked at the lace on the edge of the cloth. “Maybe Jack and his sister can still come. I want to see her baby.”
Ida sighed. “No, sweetheart. None of them will be with us. Though I am sure you’ll see the baby soon. She’ll bring her over one day when her mother doesn’t know about it.”
Ida spread her lightly freckled hands over the tablecloth, smoothing out the wrinkles the iron had missed. She fluffed the corners and placed a cut-crystal bowl to the side of the seder plate. Later, she would float rose petals in it. A touch of elegance among shank bones, roasted eggs, and bitter herbs.
Lena could tell her mother wanted to say something else. She watched her mother’s mouth play with words, but nothing came out. Ida placed the forks and knives on either side of the china plates, adjusting and readjusting them, making perfectly straight lines of the shiny silver. “Come on Mama, be honest. You always tell me no fibbing.”
“Fine,” Ida said and let out a long, slow breath. “Mrs. Roth and Uncle Karl are very angry right now. They’ve got a lot on their minds. So she said they wouldn’t be in touch with us; that none of them would.” Ida hesitated a moment and, again, Lena saw the sadness in her mother’s eyes.
Ida turned and walked toward the kitchen. In a very low voice, as if convincing herself, she added, “Until they get things straightened out.” The click-clack from the elevated train on the corner rattled the open window. A little louder, Ida called over her shoulder to Lena who remained steadfastly in the dining room looking at the three place settings. “Come on, let’s check the pot roast.”
Lena followed her mother into the kitchen. The scent of beef with carrots and potatoes simmering on the stove, suffused with savory herbs, perfumed the air. Her taste buds tingled as she schemed up ways to get to see Jack again. He always made her feel special and older, not like some little girl he had to put up with at holiday dinners. Plus, he made her laugh. If only he still lived across the river, it would have been easier. She often went with her mother back to the stalls and shops on Orchard Street where the vendors hawked their wares. But now the Roths lived in the Bronx and it was a major schlep to get there from Brooklyn, plus she had no reason to be in that borough. Her mother would never let her go alone. And she’d never bump into him in the corner candy store where all the kids from her neighborhood hung out, like her friends did when they wanted to see a certain boy. There had to be some way. Maybe she could get her mother to suggest he come along with his sister when she brought the baby to visit. This fight between their parents, no matter how long it lasted, was not going to keep her from Jack.
Ninety-five Years Later
I circled my thumb around the filigreed frame on my mother’s cameo. Seated cross-legged on the bronze carpet in her bedroom, the musky hint of White Shoulders in the air, I gazed at the lady’s face sculpted in ivory. She seemed so serene – not a feeling I could claim with Mom in the nursing home these past two months. I wanted to hold on to that serenity – the quiet, calm composure my mother used to have – so I put the brooch in the pile of jewelry to keep and sifted through more pins, bracelets, and earrings all stuffed in the leather jewelry box she’d had since I was a little girl. It was time to decide which pieces to keep, which to sell. My mother certainly wasn’t going to wear them anymore. The last bout of pneumonia stripped away every vestige of the mother I knew. The smiling woman with the cornflower-blue eyes who swam laps three times a week was gone. Someone with vacant eyes had taken her place; someone who spent her days seated in a wheelchair, in a housecoat zipped up by a nurse’s aide, the odor of urine her perfume now. My eyes welled up and I swallowed hard. That woman was not my mother, not the Mom in whose footsteps I wanted to follow.
A pair of silver earrings looked so delicate, I picked them up and played with the rhinestones dangling from the small hoop as they glistened in the sunlight streaming through the bedroom window. But they weren’t my taste, so I put them in the “for sale” pile along with the tennis bracelet Mom bought at the temple’s Chanukah boutique a few years back. She had wanted me to have the delicate chain with the fake diamonds, but I was never a fan of knockoffs. If I’d had a daughter, I could have given it to her. But I didn’t. No daughter, not even a son or a husband. And oh, how much easier all this would be now if I only had someone to share it with. Not only to share the responsibilities or to give me a break so I didn’t feel the compulsion to visit my mother every day, but someone to cling to. I didn’t even have Dad to wrap me in a blanket of love. He died ten years ago. There was no one I could cry with, who’d cry with me and miss her like I do already. That would be family, and when Mom died, which I realized would be sooner rather than later, I wouldn’t have any. A chill ran through my body every time that realization hit me. Everything seemed to spin out of control.
Antique jewelry had always called to me. Was it the unknown stories it held or the beauty of its metals and stones having survived travels across the ocean, across the years? With losing Mom, I needed something to hold on to. I picked up the cameo again and ran my index finger over the cool silver flower holding back a strand of hair that flowed over the woman’s shoulder. This brooch was old enough for it to have been carved out of ivory, not out of shell like more recent cameos. My mother’s aunt had given it to her when she was sixteen, claiming it was a family heirloom. That was almost seventy years ago. I wore it for my Sweet Sixteen party and that wasn’t yesterday either. Forty-seven years ago, to be exact, but I remember it like it was yesterday. We stood in this same room and Mom pulled the cameo out of this same jewelry box. “It compliments your red hair,” she’d said pointing to the soft brown tones surrounding the woman’s profile. I asked Mom where she got the pin and when I learned it was from her aunt, always the curious one, I said “Why did she give it to you and not her daughter?” Mom tossed my question aside as if it had no more importance than those warning tags on mattresses, but I knew my mother and her aunt had a special relationship. She’d practically raised Mom. Her own mother had died when she was a baby and her father not long after that.