C R E A T I V E N O N F I C T I O N
b y z e l d a l e a h g a t u s k i n ~
a l b u q u e r q u e , n e w m e x i c o
GLOSSARY OF YIDDISH WORDS AND PHRASES
"SACRED SPACE" - Collage by Zelda Leah Gatuskin
Summer, 1918 ~ Serock, Poland
I UNDERSTAND I have been near death with the influenza. Everyone has finally stopped weeping and praying over me, and trying to force chicken soup down my gullet. Now I am left alone to rest and try to reconstruct the fortnight that has gone by since I first took to this bed.
I remember the morning that I woke up with my limbs feeling so heavy and numb I could barely swing my legs over the side of the bed. My head, which had ached just a little the night before, thundered with pain. I must have rolled back under the sheets. I am quite certain that was on two Mondays ago.
I woke again, this time to the commotion of the three sisters who share my room moving out all of their belongings and bedding. I think this was under the supervision of Doctor Minzer and Father. It was terribly hot.
Mother sat in the corner of the room and prayed and wept continuously. Aunts and uncles and neighbors came and went but were not permitted past the threshold. They stood at the door with my siblings and peeked in sadly. Whenever I opened my eyes, someone was there to speak to me. Father and Aunt Chaya were the ones who tended to me, and to Mother, who was literally sick with worry.
I suppose four days and nights went by like this. Because the next time the doctor visited I heard him tell Father that he would have to break the Sabbath to heat water for my compresses and soups and teas. I distinctly remember Doctor Minzer saying that the next twenty-four hours would be critical, if I could live through them I would recover. I felt almost as if I had died already. I no longer felt connected to the body everyone was worrying over; my feverish dreams kept distorting what I thought to be reality. But when I heard what the doctor said, I made a decision that if my dear mother and father were going to break the Sabbath to care for me, I would have to live. I wished so much I could have spoken so I could have said this to Mother to ease her fear.
"I'm going to the cemetery to pray over my mother's grave." I remember how Mother said this and how Father and Doctor Minzer began shouting at her that she was not strong and would make herself sick as well. I felt irritated by this scene, since I knew I would live no matter what. I wondered what Mother thought Bobe Leah could do for me and why it was important for her to be at the graveside. Wasn't my grandmother's spirit everywhere? I guessed that Mother just didn't feel comfortable sitting in the house watching the Sabbath being broken...
"That's right. That's exactly right. I'd rather sit here with the headstones. It is a purer place to pray than a house in which there is no Shabbes." It was Mother. She was sitting beside me but we were no longer in my bedroom. We were in the cemetery and I was lying atop Bobe Leah's grave. The fresh air was lovely. It was dusk. The Sabbath Queen stepped right out of the sky wearing pink robes and a golden crown. As she walked toward us the sky behind her darkened but she continued to glow pink and gold. She came up to Mother and placed a gold crown like her own on Mother's head, and all the while Mother prayed and pleaded with Bobe to carry her prayers to God. Then the Sabbath Queen placed a black cloak over top of me so that I could no longer see and no longer hear.
This was the only time I was really afraid during this entire ordeal, when I was lying in the cemetery with the cloak of night blotting out all of my senses. In fact, I became terrified that I would not be able to keep my promise to live. I was choking, suffocating. My father was breaking the Sabbath and my mother was making herself crazy and all for nothing. I would die anyway. The next breath I took was so painful, with that cloak weighing down on my chest and face, that I thought it would be my last.
But, just then, the cloak was lifted away. It was lifted away by my grandmother! And it was not the cloak of night at all but just the big quilts that had been piled on top of me in my sick bed. Bobe lifted away the blankets and oh, so kindly, just like I remember, touched my forehead and my cheek with her cool hand. Then, before she left, she tucked something under my pillow and whispered in my ear, "not yet, child."
Sabbath morning, ten men came to the house and prayed. I was well enough to feel horrible. I can remember wishing they would leave. My tongue felt so thick it almost choked me and my throat felt like fire. I had no voice at all. With the greatest effort I could barely shift my legs or raise my arms. But when Father saw me watching him as he brought in another steaming kettle of water to set near the bed, he almost somersaulted with delight. The short service was about to end and he rushed to the front room to add his voice to the final prayer. Someone was sent to bring Mother home. I drifted off to sleep wondering if she would still be wearing her crown...
I don't think I woke again until Sunday because the next thing I heard was my brothers reciting their lessons under the tree in the back yard. Still I had no voice. I opened my eyes to find Mother sitting beside me just as she had in the cemetery. That's when I remembered about Bobe Leah's gift. I lifted my hand up to my pillow and tried to find the packet she had left there for me.
"Welcome back," Mother said, and then she took my hand in hers and patted it. "You saw her, didn't you?" I nodded. "And she left something for you, under the pillow?" I nodded again. Mother gently raised my head with one hand and felt all the way under the pillow with the other.
"I don't find anything under the pillow now," she said, helping me settle back more comfortably. "But I do not doubt you were given a great gift; we were all given a wonderful gift. Do you know what it is?" I could do nothing but look at her with wide eyes. "Your life. Cherish it, my daughter."
Fall, 1954 ~ Atlanta, Georgia
This has been the worst year of my life, the year I got old. I am going into the hospital for my third surgery on this stupid body that has turned into a falling-apart house. Every system needs to be fixed. I suppose I should stop being angry about it and be grateful for what the doctors are able to do these days. But I am angry. I have taken very good care of myself. Also, I have the good fortune to live in a country where the government and my neighbors are not trying to kill me. After everything my family has suffered, after all of the sacrifices they made for me, after all of their senseless premature deaths, how dare I falter like this. We will never get on our feet again; think of all of the medical bills. Perhaps I will never get on my feet again at all. I will be an invalid. Who will take care of me? My husband is working himself to exhaustion as it is. My children have their own lives. Why am I being punished? Other people do not try nearly as hard as I to observe the laws and traditions, yet they are robust and carefree. I do not begrudge them their happy healthy lives, but why am I not among them?
When I say my prayers tonight I will not pray for myself, but for my dear mother, may she rest in peace. She always felt for everyone else more than for herself. I will leave it for God to decide: If Mother needs me with her, God must send my spirit to where hers resides. But if Mother needs me to finish my work here, God must make me healthy. I feel foolish writing like this. No matter what I feel or do or pray or write, the Book of Life has already been written. I believe what my mother believed and hers before her: that whatever is to be has already been decided. We do not pray for God to re-write the Book, but only to ensure that what is written is carried through. God is very busy; I do not think it is a sin to send a friendly reminder from time to time. If it were, prayer would be forbidden.
I have had the surgery and I think I will live and be well again, now that Mother has visited me. While I was in the recovery room, I saw Mother come to my bed. She soothed my forehead with her cool hand. She didn't speak except to say "there, there," several times. Funny, when I woke up I thought at first that I was a teenager again, waking up from being so sick with the flu. I thought I heard Mother's voice saying, "cherish your life, daughter." And I reached to feel under my pillow but found nothing there. Then I touched my hair, and felt it to be cut short, its coarseness a reminder of how grey it is. Suddenly, this no longer disappoints me, that those soft reddish locks are so long gone. Suddenly, I feel very thankful for this old grey head.
Winter, 1992 ~ Wilmington, Delaware
Every single time I wake up, I am certain that the woman sitting in the chair in the corner of my room is my mother. But usually it is my daughter and sometimes it is one of my granddaughters. I don't want to see anyone else. I mean, I don't want anyone else to see me. I'm sure I look terrible. This is not the way I want to be remembered, a woman on her deathbed.
How can I have grown so old and not prepared myself for this? Once or twice before I had prepared myself for death but death was not ready for me. Now I know I have come to the very last page of the very last chapter of my life, but I am unwilling to turn it. A long and often painful story, but never boring; I hate for it to end.
I wish they would understand that I can see anyone I want now. These deathbed visits are really unnecessary. I have been transporting myself to the homes of each of my loved ones. I visit their dreams; I stand in their kitchens and watch them cook and eat and talk and laugh. I can make my own farewells. And I can't visit with people here in my room as they would like, because this place is filling up with spirits and it is terribly distracting. Hundreds of voices are whispering to me night and day. They have waited a long time for me to join them, now they are here to help me find the way...
I woke up and felt that something had been laid on the bed next to my right hand. I began patting the covers, looking for it. "What is it you're looking for? Can I help?" It was my granddaughter, the middle one, the one I told all of my stories to, and she was looking at me like she knew.
"Nothing, it's all right," I said, and tried to make my hand be still.
She looked a little disappointed but didn't ask again. I remember being curious like that. I remember suspecting that below the surface of our daily routines and habits, marvelous, magical events transpired. How else could my mother and aunts transform the drudgery of housework into joyous ritual? And I found I could do the same. Now that I have this strange power, I like to surprise my friends in mundane moments. When I find them washing dishes or cleaning the stove, I breathe like a tickly feather in their ear or make the sound of their names being called from far away. It's to remind them, the Spirit is everywhere...
That granddaughter caught me talking to no one again. She was very tactful about it. Now I am certain she knows what is going on, but I do not feel able to discuss it. When she sits in the room with me she too appears to be listening to the voices. Good, in that case she will be able to make this last entry for me. She will know to write that in the end, waking became the dream and sleeping became the waking; and that when I woke for the last time, I did find a packet under my pillow, and I took it in my hand, and rose from the bed and went to my mother's side.
Mother and Bobe Leah may rest at last, for I have become the keeper of the secret gift. It is my turn now to protect and bestow the blessing of the matriarchs whenever our descendents call out in need.
Bobe -- grandmother
Shabbes -- (Hebrew) Sabbath
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