Repentance – Allyson Shames

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Aunt Gerry lived to almost 100. No one knows exactly how old she was when she died, because no one was sure exactly what year she was born. Records were changed at immigration, and it’s not completely clear that her parents knew a precise birthday, at least translated into English. The story goes that they relied on their eldest child – my grandfather – to provide the census takers with information, as he spoke better English than anyone else in the house. Or, he spoke the only English in the house. He was four at the time, which probably explains the funky spelling of their names in the 1910 census records, too. 

It took Brian three days to notice I changed the knobs on all the drawers in our apartment. “Cream-colored porcelain knobs are like almond-colored refrigerators.” I told him. “They make me think of my Aunt Gerry at 94 in her apartment with a yellow armchair that smelled like Depends and a fridge full of leftover takeout mustard.”

This apartment – mine, Brian’s – did not have urine-stenched upholstered chairs. It did not have questionable take-out; the fridge was stocked with ingredients for Brian’s juice fast: kale, cucumbers, cabbage, pears. We’d put the down payment on the apartment instead of paying for a fancy honeymoon; it made sense, he said, to invest in the future.

Brian fingers the silver knobs. “Shiny,” he says.

“Clean,” I reply. “The other ones – who knows how long they were here? And who touched them before us?”

Brian takes a deep breath in, exhales, rises from crouching at knob-level. “You can wash them,” he says. “Spray them with vinegar and water or a little lemon juice.”

“I don’t think you can spray stainless with lemon juice.”

“Miranda,” he says, and he’s standing now, facing me in this airy bathroom that was ours and filled with light through the ceiling skylights, “I don’t think they’re stainless. I think, actually, they’re likely some kind of plastic, with a veneer. They’ll probably crack under enough pressure.” Brian is highly suspicious of anything cheap. He opens a drawer, pulls out a wrench. “Want to try?”

I recoil, an almost physical reaction to the pliers held out towards me. “No.”

He shrugs. “And I was talking about the old ones, the porcelain. They’re solid, sturdy. They can withstand lemon juice.” He looks at the pliers, opening and closing them before tossing them back in the drawer, where they made a thud.

I stand on my tiptoes and kiss his stubbly cheek. “I like the new ones,” I say, and I leave him in the bathroom, walk into our bedroom with the double bed from my childhood room, the dresser from his, but the quilt that was ours. I pull up the sheets, the quilt, fluff the pillows, then walk into the kitchen to make coffee.

 

My great-grandfather had come over from Russia before his family, which is the way it was often done then. He’d taken the boat, come to New York, found an apartment, and sent for his wife and children. They came: small son, smaller daughter, heavily pregnant wife. They came on the rolling, filthy boat, weeks in steerage. I picture my great-grandmother heaving morning sickness into the churning Atlantic, wondering if the baby would be born on the ship and if it would survive. As the story goes, the baby waited, and was born their first morning in America: Sarah, the new American. She was the only one with an American name right from the start. My great-grandmother met the neighbor women when they came to help with her labor, since my great-grandfather neither knew of a doctor nor had the English words to find one. Sarah, the American baby, was the only one with a known birthdate, the only one who could speak English without mixing in Yiddish words. She was the light of her family, of older brother Moshe and sister Gussie, until she died of flu in 1914, on the same day that her father was drafted to fight in the war. Left grieving with her two older children, my great-grandmother retreated into her home, covered her head with scarves, and stayed there. Gussie grew, became Gerry by the 1920 census, and maintained a memorial to her dead sister for the rest of her life. It was in the corner, in the space where her mother lived out her days and years: that old yellow chair, a faded photograph, and a candle. Always a candle.

 

The ten days between Rosh Hashanah and Yom Kippur are called the Days of Awe, which in New York means, to people like me, approximately nothing. My mother calls on Rosh Hashanah morning to ask if I’m going to services at the synagogue.

“I don’t belong to a synagogue, Ma, you know that.”

“You should.”

“Maybe when we have children.”

“And when will that be?”

“Ma—“

“Synagogues won’t turn away anyone on the High Holidays.”

“I know.”

“There’s that one on the corner, the big one in the brick building.”

“Ma.”

“But bring your checkbook.”

“I thought you said they won’t turn anyone away?”

“They won’t. But they have guest fees. They have to pay their mortgage like the rest of us.”

“I have a meeting today, one o’clock. It’s important.”

“All day? There is a synagogue somewhere in that city with services that are not at 1.”

And I do go, to the one on the corner, looking around like an awkward teenager for someone I know, which is no one. I’m wearing my work clothes: navy blazer and skirt, print blouse, pumps. I’m a lawyer. I wear suits. No one else in the room is wearing a suit, except the men.

I call my mother later. “I went,” I tell her.

“Of course you did.”

“What’s that supposed to mean?”

“You’re a good girl.”

 

It is 1995, a Friday, and I am home from college for Thanksgiving. My mother announces we’re going to Brooklyn. It’s the annual pilgrimage to see my aunt. My brother has managed to talk his way out of it but I didn’t plan far enough ahead. My father says he thinks he has a cold coming on, that he’d best stay home and rest. So it is me and my mother in the car on the Connecticut turnpike, in traffic as we work our way to the city, towards bagels and lox and the horrible Kosher deli that sells tongue.

We can’t show up without tongue. This is the one part of the trip that even my mother detests.

The deli is small, cramped. Because it’s Kosher, there are no New York bagels with cream cheese, but there is meat, and much of it, oversized sandwiches with no cheese. It is a year before I meet Brian, a year before I become a vegetarian. I order a corned beef sandwich on rye, to go. My mother says, “Make sure to get your own mustard. Don’t eat anything out of your aunt’s fridge.”

Her apartment is small, a walk-up on the second floor, rent controlled. The hallway smells musty but it’s nothing compared to the apartment. I don’t think a window has been opened in fifty years.

My aunt meets us in the hallway, thinning gray hair pulled back in a tight bun, energetic in spite of her age. She smiles at us but embraces the package from the deli. “Such kindness,” she says, looking at the brown paper, not at my mother. “It’s too long of a walk for me, now.”

Gerry comes to me, pinches my check, reaching up to do so. “You’ve grown,” she says, “You’re almost as tall as me.”

I hug her frail frame, leaning down. She has shrunk more since the last time I saw her, but her embrace is strong, her grip tight.

We sit down to eat. The kitchen table is small, round, clean, but my mother wipes it down anyway with a paper towel. “You don’t know how long it may have been,” she whispers to me.

We sit, and my aunt unwraps her sandwich. “It needs mustard,” she says, and pushes back from the table, stands, turns, opens the fridge.

“I brought some,” my mother tells her, and produces the packets from the deli.

“That’s silly, Rachel,” my aunt says. “I have plenty.”

The fridge is, as expected, full of bits of leftovers: half-used condiment packets, leftover halves of sliced pickles, carefully wrapped halves of sandwiches. Gerry chooses a mustard packet, the end carefully sealed with Scotch tape. She peels off the tape, squeezes it on to her sandwich. When it’s not quite enough, she opens the one from my mother, uses half of that, seals it with new tape, puts it in the fridge.

“It will still be here next Thanksgiving,” my mother whispers to me, while Gerry is facing the fridge.

“She must have a stomach of steel,” I respond.

We eat, and I try very hard not to look at the tongue, which is hard since my aunt insists on discussing it.

“It’s a delicacy,” she says. “It used to be what you bought when you had no money. Now it’s a delicacy. Isn’t that funny?”

  I nod, breathing out of my mouth so that I don’t have to smell it.

After lunch, we settle in the living room. Gerry sits in the yellow chair, that old photo of Sarah staring down at her, the candle flickering from the nearby shelf.

“Did I ever tell you about my sister?” Gerry asks.

I force a smile, nod.

“She was beautiful,” Gerry says. “She had the nicest hair, see that thick braid? And smart, she always went to school. And then she got sick, and my mother never recovered.”

“I’m sure that was very difficult,” my mother says.

Gerry doesn’t answer, but picks up one item after another from the cabinet: an old book, a key, a small pewter cup; Sarah’s, all of them. I watch my great-aunt with pity in that old, faded chair.

When it’s time to leave, Gerry takes my hands in hers. Her hands are cold, wrinkled, each vein visible through the translucent skin. “I have something for you,” she says. She drops my hands, walks slowly towards the cabinet, takes down the pewter cup, brings it to me.

“We were too poor to buy a proper Kiddish cup,” she says, “so we used this. My mother never used it again after Sarah died.

“I may not be here by Thanksgiving next year,” she says, “and this needs to be in a good home.”

I fight tears on the way to the car, which my mother somehow doesn’t comment on. Which is good, because I’m not sure why I’m crying.

 

The day before Yom Kippur, my mother calls. I’m not home, so she talks to Brian. Actually, I’m fairly sure she plans it this way. They’ll talk, sometimes for hours. Mostly, she talks. Brian is a writer and finds people fascinating, so he listens, writes things down sometimes. It seems to bring him peace.

When I come home from the store, a grocery bag balanced in each arm and my keys hanging from my teeth, Brian smiles. He takes one bag, but he’s silent as he cradles the phone under his cheek, listening.

 “How many ladies come to the Garden Club?” he says into the phone.

Then, “So, that one you just said, Elly? She’s the one who always brings pound cake with strawberries? Does she bake it herself?”

I am quite sure that if Brian and I ever get divorced, my mother will choose to keep only him.

“Your mom wants us to go to her house tomorrow,” he says, after he hangs up.

“Of course she does.”

“I said yes,” he says.

I’m in the middle of unbuttoning my coat; it’s October and finally starting to feel like fall. “You did?”

“We’re about to tell her that we’re not coming for Thanksgiving, right? And she asks all the time. She sounded so hopeful.”

“But it’s a Sunday,” I say. “An entire day with no plans.”

“Which is exactly why we can go. You’ll miss this some day, Miranda.”

“You sound like her,” I tell him, and go to hang up my coat.

 

At services at my mother’s synagogue in Connecticut, I wear a skirt but not a suit. The congregation is full of gray-haired women, the mothers of my childhood friends from the days when only grandmothers had gray hair. We hug, we talk, I feel young and old at the same time.

The rabbi talks about reflection over the Days of Awe, and my mother nods but I do not. Brian stands next to me, looking comfortable in spite of his Protestant upbringing. The ten days of juice have made him slimmer, healthier. I’d told him it was stupid but now I’m silent, which means I don’t have to admit I was wrong but can keep it to myself that he was right.

Yom Kippur is about forgiveness, and the rabbi talks and talks, through the prayers, the melodies of my childhood. I fight the urge to stretch, to fiddle with my shoes or the tight pantyhose that I wore to make my mother happy. I wonder why Brian looks so at ease. I wonder where the younger people are.

Near the end, the rabbi recites Kaddish, the prayer for the dead. My mother whispers it along with him.

“Who died?” I ask.

“My father, my aunt.”

“Ma, that was a decade ago.”

She nods again, attentive.

I stand next to her, watching how her body rocks forward and back just slightly, as though she doesn’t know it’s happening. I think of my aunt and that musty apartment, the photograph on the shelf.

“Your aunts,” I whisper. “Not aunt.”

My mother smiles, and I feel I’ve done something right.

In a moment, the rabbi blows the shofar, the long, singular, echoing note. The sound enters me, taking up all the hollow spaces, leaves like a deep exhalation. I notice that Brian’s eyes are closed, like he’s meditating. I wonder if he expected this.

 

We drive home that evening to avoid rush hour traffic the next morning. On the way in we talk about what to have for dinner, where to stop. “I know a little place in Brooklyn,” I tell him, and he shrugs.

An hour later we’re in front of the deli, the same one, still musty, still cramped, and surprisingly open, considering that all Jews – the good Jews – were supposed to be fasting, until the sun set an hour ago. We order rye bread, sauerkraut, pickles: two vegetarians in a Kosher deli in Brooklyn. I tell Brian about the tongue, about the visits each Thanksgiving. We take our rye bread and go down the street to another deli, this one for dairy, and buy slices of cheese. We picnic in the car by streetlight, and drive home.

The next morning, I wake up before Brian, and stumble into the bathroom. In the mirror I see a gray hair, and lift my hand to pluck it out, but stop. Instead, I open the top drawer, pull out the porcelain knobs and the screwdriver. I unscrew the silver ones, replace the porcelain. On the shelf where the towels and toothbrushes are kept, I place the tiny pewter cup that I’d brought home from my mother’s house, where it had sat in her china cabinet all these years. I stand and look at it for a while; look at myself in the mirror. The hair, I think, may be more silver than gray; when the light hits it just so from the skylight above.

 

A Jewish writer, mother, and former secondary English teacher, Allyson’s fiction has appeared in “Literary Mama” and her nonfiction has appeared in “Brain, Child” online. Allyson studied writing through the Iowa Summer Writing Festival, with David Borofka, Lynn Hightower,and others through the fiction certificate program at UCLA online, and with Jay Kauffman at Writer House, a writer’s cooperative in Charlottesville, Virginia, where she currently lives.

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