We are sitting at the small kitchen table in my mother’s apartment. She reaches toward a green prickly plant on the windowsill, some sort of displaced cactus, and feels the soil, rubbing a few grains between her thumb and arthritically misshapen forefinger. Always there have been plants on the windowsill, veined green leaves and twisted stalks struggling for sun in the shaded Bronx apartment we had lived in, carefully tended by her as if they were her children.“
The next morning, I was sent to my mother’s cousins in another shtetl, to live and help them with the cleaning, the farm, a little of everything. I was already a balaboste (good housekeeper). I’m not sure how long it was I stayed there. I worked hard, mostly outside; there were two children about my age, they were very nice to me. When I needed something to eat, they made sure I got it. I remember one day a young bully (it is an American word she pronounces with a special vigor) from the village took away the basket of blueberries that I was all morning picking, they complained to the cousins and the thief had to pay me for my work. Of course, I missed my mother. I was so young, what was I, about nine? Once in a while she came to see me, my mother. I used to wonder would I ever live with her again in our house? Then I was sent to live with my grandfather, who worked at a nearby dairy farm. I learned to milk cows. I remember hiding in the barn once, when the Cossacks came. I watched. I was scared. They made him get down on his knees and they cut off his beard.”
I wait for the end of the story, watching her compose it.
“Then one day, maybe it was a year, maybe two years later, I don’t remember exactly, a cousin came to tell me that my mother was dead, and already buried. She was killed by a Russian soldier who was looking for food. He wanted potatoes; she opened the cellar door to show him she had no potatoes; she was pregnant. He knocked her down the cellar stairs. Killed her for not having enough.”
She pauses again, staring, her brow now furrowed, her eyes moistened by memory, and then continues telling her story, how she ran miles down roads and across fields to her mother’s new grave.
“There was a tree nearby the grave, and I put my arms around it. I hugged the tree and I cried.”
She rocks back and forth holding her elbows, cradling her sorrow, her eyes closed, a little humming sound coming from her that buzzes around the room. Sounds from another world, more real than this one here. I envision the tree with spreading branches. I ache for her.
“I can still feel the tree pressing into my skin, after all these years.”
Her mother, the tree.
She rubs her arms with her rough hands, a soft scratchy sound that sends a shiver up my back, and with a sigh, rises from her chair and walks to the stove. The sun streams through the kitchen window and lights up the blue veins of her arm as she reaches for the chanik (kettle) on the stove-top to boil water. The rest I already knew, that at the age of fourteen, sponsored by her aunt in America and helped by the Hebrew Immigrant Aid Society, she traveled on her own from Rakow, in Minsk Gobernia, to New York, carrying her heavy losses with her. Unspoken presences, they haunted the life of her children in turn.
Six months after my mother told me this story, she entered the hospital, or rather, was helped in, her abdomen bloated, as if she were carrying some wondrous child. Peritoneal cancer, as it turned out, although for months the doctors had attributed her abdominal pains to pathological mourning. Maybe it was that also. Who knows how dynamic the mind is, how potent its reach? Every day for the next few weeks I would sit at her bedside, staring at her swollen torso, watching numbly as it was turned several times a day by the nurses, lugged first this way, then that way, like a beached whale. Every few days her body would be drained of the fluids that kept filling her up.
After the first week, she asked me to call her few remaining friends and relatives to tell them where she was, and several came to visit. But no one spoke of dying; no one said cancer, least of all me.
“You’ll be all right. It’s an intestinal disorder. The doctors are treating it. Don’t worry. They just need to find the right combination of medicine.”
Don’t worry. Did she know I was lying, as I had always lied to her, when I assured her that she would recover soon? I couldn’t mouth words that might cause her pain; she seemed so vulnerable. Don’t worry. But she always had anyway. She must have known what was incubating inside her without my saying the word.
As the days passed, she grew increasingly silent. What was she thinking then, as she lay there staring back at me? Perhaps she continued to tell herself stories about people she loved and had lost, perhaps that’s what kept her engorged day after day. Then one day, the noise coming out of her mouth became louder, a deep guttural snore from the center of the earth. I knew there were no stories that could survive that sound. I sat beside her for several hours that day, wondering how long she could last, leaning in close, watching for a sign, fearful that I might not recognize her death when it came. But there was no mistaking the moment, for when she finally gave up the ghost, it was bright red, and it spilled from her mouth.