Under the covers, the form was small, almost childlike in size, and her features, save for the darkness under the eyes, made her look younger than her thirty-two years. The yellow pallor of her skin told the story though, the unhealthy color indicated more than a lack of sunlight, and more am indication of a terrible sickness. In Yiddish, the only language spoken by both the children and adults, her sister tried to get her to eat some broth. “You must eat Esther. Your children need you. Please, just a few mouthfuls. Mamala, please try.” Esther slowly open her mouth, but quickly shut it. She shook her head. “I can’t eat. I just want to rest. Give the broth to the children. Don’t waste it.” And with that she slowly closed her eyes and appeared to fall asleep.
The funeral was small. David, Esther’s husband appeared to be deep in thought as he sat and listened to the rabbi chant the prayers for the dead. He looked around and saw his children with various women in the family. What did he know about taking care of them? The youngest girl was only eighteen months old, the oldest nine. There was a three-year old girl, and two boys, ages five and seven. Five children. Five surviving children from seven births. Too many mouths to feed, and now no mother to look after them. It was at the funeral that David decided to leave. The family will take care of them, and when I can, I’ll send money, and maybe see them sometimes.
He never sent money, and his children never saw him again. It was rumored that he had remarried and sired even more offspring. His mother, knowing that deserting his family was a shanda, a disgrace, sat shiva for him. He was dead to her, and his name was never again spoken in her presence. All pictures of him were destroyed, and anything he had left behind burned. It was like he never was. Only Miriam, the oldest child would remember him, and miss him. She never spoke about the pain she sometimes got in her chest when she thought of her parents, and especially her father. For the rest of her life, she would often think that she saw him walking down the street or sitting in the park. As she got older, her image of him remained the same. He never aged and would forever look and speak as he did the last time she saw him. At age seventy, Miriam was heard to remark, “Dora, see that young man. I think he looks just like Papa. I think I’ll walk over and take a closer look.”
The sun coming in from the large window of the store reflected on the pins and made them glow like night stars in the sky. Dozens of them lay all over the floor and beneath the sewing machines. The little girl fell on her skinny knees and began to pick the pins up one by one. Her heavy wool socks and long coat prevented her legs from getting hurt. “Look,” said the large woman in a heavy European accent as she picked the small child up, “at three years old, she already knows what to do.”
The woman was all in black, and her dress, made of the finest fabric, was in the style of the early 1920s. It hung loosely on her large frame, and while the color was stark, the delicate white lace around the neckline and the long pearl necklace softened the look. She was never seen wearing any other color. This reminded her and everyone else, that she had lost two children, for whom she mourned every day of her life. The children, both boys, were ages nine and twelve at the time they drowned in a boating accident. A summer picnic and boat ride that ended in tragedy. Each Sunday she and her husband would drive to the cemetery, where she would place a small stone on the top of each grave. Evidence that there were people who remembered and loved these dead children still. Once the stones were placed (now many layers high), and prayers said, the man would step aside while his wife would begin to wail and cry. This they did every Sunday, and to this place Dora the small child would also in time come to share their sorrow.
The couple owned a combined cleaning and alterations store. Business was good, and besides the two of them, they also employed two women who did most of the sewing, and who also created new garments from patterns for many of their wealthier customers. Everyone worked hard, and within their neighborhood the couple were known as honest business people who had suffered a great loss. The boating accident had been three years ago, and when they heard that a young mother of five small children had died, and that their father had then abandoned them, the couple began an inquiry. The children’s extended family struggled to keep everyone together, but they had their own mouths to feed, so with great heartache, the children were placed in a Jewish foundling home. It was from there that Dora, then three years old, was brought to live with the couple, and where she would in time be adopted as their daughter.
The father loved the girl from the moment she came to them. She brought laughter and joy into a home where laughter and joy had once lived but had gone for what seemed forever the day two young bodies had washed ashore. The girl clung to him, eventually would call him Pop, and if any memories of life before him existed, she had pushed them so deeply into her memory bank, that no matter how hard she tried, they could not be retrieved. Thus, this man and woman were her family. They knew but did not discuss with her that she had four siblings, and that the other two girls had been adopted, while the boys remained in the foundling home. The woman who dressed in black, and took care of her, never told Dora what to call her. So, the child called her nothing. As it was something that had always been, it did not seem strange to Dora that the woman had no name. Others called her Aunt Rebecca, or just Becky, something the girl could not, or chose not to do. She had no memory of ever calling anyone mom, and while the woman in her own way gave her love, she did not yet give her the right to claim her as her own.
They lived in the rooms behind and above the store. Dora had her own bedroom, and a closet full of clothes that had made for her. As she got older, she would work in the store after school waiting on customers or sewing along with the other women. In time the couple, whose English was limited, would begin to depend on her more and more, and this pleased the girl. They had legally adopted her when she turned thirteen, as no one had heard from her birth father for over ten years. She was no longer their ward, but truly their daughter, something they at this point talked to her about. They decided for whatever reason, to still not tell her about her siblings. It was when the adoption became finalized that the woman told Dora to call her mom. After ten years of nothing, it felt strange to say the word. It almost seemed that calling her nothing was more comfortable than calling her this name.
As time went by, Dora continued spending time with her cousins through adoption. She felt that they were her family, and indeed they were the only family she had ever known. The business grew, and her parents became the first in the neighborhood to own a new car. It was in this car that clothes were delivered and picked-up, and it was this car that enabled the couple to extend their business beyond their immediate neighborhood and into the more affluent areas. While her father tended the store, the woman would make house calls to collect garments that needed alterations, or discuss, with Dora’s help, new designs she was working on. They never went on vacation or travelled beyond their own city limits. They continued their weekly drive to the cemetery, where Dora would stand outside the gate watching, but even with this, life was good. She wanted for nothing, and if someone had asked her if she was happy, the probability of her answering “Yes” would have been very high.
She attended a neighborhood high school and was popular among her classmates as someone who dressed well, was friendly, and always seemed to have a smile on her face. One day in school, someone came into her classroom and handed a note to the teacher. The teacher looked at Dora and told her that there was someone that wanted to talk to her, and that she should take her books with her. She followed the messenger downstairs and was told to sit outside the office for a moment. Looking down the hall, Dora saw a young woman coming towards her. The woman smiled as she got closer, and then when almost face to face, she said “Dora, my name is Miriam. I’m your sister.” Dora stared at her. This woman my sister? My sister. Even the word sounded strange. Miriam told her to go get her things. That she had permission to take her out of school early, and that they had a lot to talk about. As though in a trance, Dora followed Miriam outside.
They walked to a nearby park, where Miriam told Dora of their birth parents whom she remembered well, of their other sister Reba, who the people were that had adopted them, and of her brothers who had never been adopted. She told her that the brothers had lived their young lives in the foundling home and were now on their own. Miriam told how she had lived on a farm outside the city, and that it was the kind of life that she hated and left as soon as she was able. Their other sister, Reba, was adopted by an older couple, and she had no knowledge yet of either Miriam or Dora. Miriam, as the oldest sibling was nine when her mother died, so she was well aware of the four other children, as it often fell to her to take care of them, especially when her mother became ill. Reba was only eighteen months when she was sent to the home, and like Dora, was never told anything about having sisters or brothers. Miriam had stayed in touch with the boys, and felt it was time that they all knew about each other, and perhaps go back to being a family once again.
Dora walked home in a daze. In her pocket was a number where Miriam could be reached. She thought about how Miriam had left the farm, and how her brothers had helped her find a room that she could rent, and a job at a large department store, where both the brothers presently worked in the stock room. Miriam had told her so much. Almost too much for her to absorb at one time. She had never asked questions about her birth parents, or family. She wondered now why she hadn’t. Perhaps she was afraid that her parents, who had suffered so much, would be hurt if she expressed any interest in her life before she came to live with them. Or maybe she wasn’t that interested in finding out about her previous life. But now, things had changed, and she couldn’t pretend that everything today was the same as yesterday. It wasn’t and would never be. Years later, it would seem to her that this day in her life, would be one of the most defining. But for now, she had to make some decisions, and perhaps hurt people who had been nothing but kind and loving to her.
All through dinner, Dora sat quietly and ate little. The conversation as usual centered on the business. Most evenings, Dora was an active participant in these talks, but not tonight. Her parents were fully aware that something was wrong, but decided that when Dora was ready, she would share with them what the problem was. She needed to talk to Miriam again. The first thing to be done was to go into the store part of the house without her parents seeing her. There was a phone there, and if her parents were upstairs asleep, they wouldn’t hear her. She had never done anything like this, but short of telling them about Miriam’s visit to school, this was the only thing she could think of. The sisters decided where and when they would meet next, and that Miriam would take her to meet her brothers.
Harry and Morris waited anxiously on the corner. Miriam had told them a little about Dora, and it sounded like she had landed in a pretty nice situation with people who owned a very successful business. Well, they would own a business someday too. That’s all the brothers talked about. All they dreamed about. Morris at eighteen, and Harry at twenty, had been working for five years. Lying about their ages, they both got jobs at the major department store in town. After five years, and living like hermits together in one room, they had saved just enough to make their dreams a reality. Morris turned to flick his cigarette onto the sidewalk, when he saw Miriam off in a distance. Walking with her was a short thin woman. So, this is Dora, Harry thought, and he smiled. He had not had much reason to smile in his life but meeting his sister for the first time definitely made him smile.
For Dora, it was love at first sight. Could these tall, handsome men be her brothers? It just wasn’t possible. Yet, if you looked closely, you could tell that they were related. Theirs eyes, or maybe their mouths. Something that showed they were family. Family. Her family. Her real family. For the first time since she met Miriam, Dora felt afraid. Afraid of losing something. But what? They found a cheap place to grab a bite, and there they sat for two hours talking until the waiter started to clear his throat every time he walked past them. Once outside, they seemed reluctant to leave each other. After years of separation, each day, each hour, seemed precious, and not to be wasted. One thing they did decide. Reba was too young to be told about the other four. First, they would get to know each other better. That was their plan for now, and it was one that pleased Dora. She decided that instead of sneaking around, she would tell her parents everything this Sunday. They loved her. They would always be her parents, but now in a way she had two families. From nothing, she had all of this. The fear that she had felt earlier was gone. In its place was sheer joy.
When Sunday came, Dora waited until dinner was finished. She had spent the past week going over and over the words she would use to tell them about her brothers and sisters. She knew it was important to take it slowly, and not to begin to cry. As she helped her mother clear the table, she asked if before they had their dessert she could talk to them. Her mother sat solemnly down, folded her hands, and looked at Dora. In the next half hour Dora told them everything. From her first meeting with Miriam, to this last meeting with the three of them, she told them all that she had learned and been told. Her parents sat quietly. Occasionally they looked at each other but remained silent. After Dora assured them both that they were her parents and she loved them, and this was her home, she stopped talking. Then total silence. Finally, her mother stood-up and said that she and her father would talk about this, and that they would discuss it with her in the morning. That was it. They went upstairs, closed their bedroom door, and Dora did not hear or see them again for the rest of the evening.
Dora slept little that night, and when morning came she was in the kitchen before it was light outside. Her parents, from the look of them had not slept much either, but they appeared calm, and almost resigned to what they were about to say. Her father, after clearing his throat began by saying that they knew this time would come, as they were aware that not only did she have siblings, but that they did not live very far away. This revelation completely surprised Dora, and she wasn’t sure how she felt about them not telling her. For now, she pushed this new information aside. She would think about it later. Now was not the time. They wanted her to know that she was free to see them as often as she liked, but that she still had school work to maintain, and her working in the store would of course have to continue. Also, they wanted to know anytime she was going to be with them, and where they would be going. Though her parents did not mention inviting them to their home, at least they were allowing her to be with them, and this pleased Dora beyond measure.
Within the year, Miriam married, with Harry giving her away. Dora was in the bridal party and wore a lovely dress that her mother had made especially for the occasion. The brothers, whose job at the foundling home had been to take care of the grounds and plants, opened a small garden center. They both worked hard and hoped in time their business would become successful. Eventually Reba was brought into their little group, but problems with her parents allowing her to see them prevented them from being with her as often as they would have liked. So usually, when they got together, it was only the four of them, with Miriam’s husband joining occasionally. Between school, work, and spending time with her siblings, her life was full. Little time was left for her cousins, but if they felt left out, they said nothing to Dora about it.
Then her father became ill. With her mother going to the hospital each day, it was left to Dora to run the store, pay the household and business expenses and to also pay the salaries of their workers. She hired someone to pick-up and deliver the clothes, and remained in the store well after closing, taking care that all transactions were duly noted in their accounts leger. It was full-time work, and little time was left for school and her siblings. But there was no one else that could do this. She had stopped going to the cemetery every Sunday once she had met Miriam and her brothers, but her parents had continued going themselves up until her father had taken ill. What would they do if her father did not get better?
He passed-away on a cold winter day, and with her mother at her side, Dora helped bury someone that had packed her lunch, made sure she had her gloves and scarf, and who she knew loved her very much. She would truly miss this good man she called Pop. After everyone had left their home, the two women looked at each other. There was so much to discuss, so many questions. As her mother turned to go upstairs, she looked to Dora as if she had aged overnight. Alone, her mother climbed the stairs, more slowly than Dora ever remembered. The tears came fast and hard. Some were for her and her uncertain future, some for her mother, but mostly she cried for her father. He was the only father she had ever known, and now he was gone.
Life continued for Dora and her mother. Each night they both fell into their beds exhausted from running the business, minus one major worker. Any thoughts about what she wanted to do after graduation were put on hold until she could determine what to do about the business. She knew her mother couldn’t run the business alone, but Dora really didn’t feel that she wanted to do this much longer. Some young men had shown interest in getting more serious, but she just didn’t feel the same towards them. The key was to just get through each day, and in June she’d sit down with her mother, and have a serious talk. That talk never came, as four months after her father died, her mother took ill. While many marriages after facing a horrible tragedy might flounder, her parent’s marriage grew stronger. Together they weathered the loss of their children, and together they welcomed Dora into their home. While her father loved her almost immediately, in time Dora felt and knew that her mother loved her as well.
To say that her mother died of a broken heart, is too simple, but in Dora’s mind that’s what happened. Her heart just couldn’t take one more great loss. Miriam and her brothers returned with her after the funeral to her home. They had been a source of support through the illnesses and deaths of both parents, and Dora knew that without them, she wasn’t sure she could have gotten through it all. Waiting for her were the cousins she had grown-up with, played with, laughed and cried with, and loved. They were sitting around the dinning-room table and told Dora that they wanted to talk to her. Miriam, Harry and Morris remained standing, as Dora took a seat and looked to her cousin David who was the oldest of the cousins, and a lawyer in private practice. On the table were five, ten dollars bills. He pushed them towards her. Dora looked at them confused. David then proceeded to tell her that the family was going to sell the business, and the home as well. All jewelry, clothing, and furniture would be dispersed among the family, and that did not include Dora. David also said that she had five days to gather her personal belongings and find a place to live. The fifty dollars was meant to cover any expenses she might incur. There would be nothing more forthcoming.
Dora just sat there looking at the money. She felt Harry’s hands tighten on her shoulders, as Morris began to walk towards David, hands clenched in a fist. David stood up. “Don’t try and fight this. Your father never signed his rights away to any of his children. You were adopted without his consent, and perhaps even without his knowledge. State laws vary as to when an adoption can become legal based on the absence of a birth-parent. You legally have no right to anything here. You have five days to leave. No more.”
Dora left before the five days were up. She packed her clothes and took framed pictures of her parents. Nothing else. She said her goodbyes to the women she had worked with, and said she was sorry how all this had ended. Everyone cried. She lived with Miriam for three years until she married. Her brothers, one on each side, walked her down the aisle, and stood with her under the chuppah as she recited her wedding vows. Often, she would think of what she would have done, and where she would have gone if not for her siblings.
On most Sundays, she could be found placing stones on four graves, and saying prayers for the dead.