Essential Stories – Edna Schneider

Ruth pushes open the heavy metal doors to P.S.160. She climbs the stairs, her steps echoing through the stairwell, and rushes to her classroom. Ruth teaches science to underprivileged eleven-year-old children at an after-school program in her grandmother’s Bronx neighborhood.  She enters the classroom that smells like an elephant circus tent, the air is clouded by overloaded chalk erasers, and aluminum desks are in four straight rows with chewing gum stuck under the seats. Ruth immediately opens the window near her desk, then stands in the front of the classroom waiting for quiet before beginning her lesson.

“Today we’re learning the scientific method.”

There is a universal groan, and she is sure most students would rather be hanging out listening to hip-hop than learning a 17th-century scientific methodology. Ruth agreed to teach remedial science classes to defray the enormous debt of student loans, earn enough money to move to an apartment and visit her grandmother more often. Nevertheless, Ruth wants her students to realize that pursuing knowledge of the world and its wonders, requires learning the fundamental truths that pass from one generation to the next.

After class, Ruth packs her fabric tote and heads out to her car. She is relieved that her secondhand Chevy is still there and not missing any tires. She drives along Kingsbridge Road, dilapidated parks and colorful graffiti covering walls of rundown buildings escort her through the streets of the South Bronx. Row houses run for miles along severed neighborhoods, disconnected in the 1950s when Robert Moses designed the Cross Bronx Expressway and cared more about money than people.

Ruth finds a parking space a few blocks from her grandmother’s high-rise. Red brick apartment buildings are everywhere, except for the superstructure where Ruth’s grandmother lives, built ten years ago by the city government’s attempts to gentrify The Bronx. Ruth turns off 104.3 FM, and leaves her car humming The Beatles’ “Don’t Let Me Down.” Boyfriend #3 let her down, he was her lover for two years before he left their apartment, and she moved back to her parents’ home in Larchmont. Walking the broken sidewalks up a steep hill, Ruth fantasizes about meeting boyfriend #4, hoping he won’t let her down, and love her forever.

She enters the bare blue lobby of her grandmother’s building assaulted by the smell of fried codfish and takes the elevator to the 20th floor. Franz Liszt’s Hungarian Rhapsody streams down the hallway from her grandmother’s apartment. Ruth knocks on her door. When Anna opens it, her thin dark hair is pulled back and held in place with a brass hairpin, her face is smiling as though she just saw her firstborn.

“You should come more often.”

Ruth knows that this irritating greeting is her grandmother’s way of telling her she doesn’t want their visit to end.

They embrace, and Ruth inhales the pleasant, savory smell of chicken soup as they walk the long foyer to the kitchen. Chagall reproductions hang on the walls, and Anna’s family photos adorn every surface of her three rooms.

“Grandma, did you start cooking your chicken soup today for tomorrow’s sabbath dinner?”

“I like to make it a day ahead so it can absorb all the flavors.”

Occasionally, Ruth joins her grandmother on a Friday night when Anna lights the Sabbath candles in the shiny silverplate candle sticks Ruth’s parents gifted her when she moved to her new apartment. On those Friday nights, they pray together over wine and challah and then eat chicken soup with fluffy matzah balls.

In the kitchen, Ruth sits across from her grandmother at a small rectangular table pressed against the off-white wall, a large window frames the alley between the two tall buildings. Anna makes tea in frosted glasses each with two sugar cubes, putting one in her mouth as if it were a cherry lifesaver. She cuts into a scrumptious cinnamon loaf and serves a generous piece to both. Ruth takes a sip of tea.

“Can I help you with anything, Grandma?”

“You’re so sweet my dear. Can you please lift that sack of flour and put it on the counter I’m going to bake tomorrow.”

Ruth bites into a piece of the sweet loaf and licks the cinnamon filling that oozes out onto her fingers. She is a little girl again running into Anna’s house opening the red breadbox filled with a woody, spicy scent, and eating the warm cake straight away, having dessert before dinner.

“Grandma, how do you make this cake? It’s my very favorite. I’d love the recipe.”

“I make it the way I remember; I don’t have a recipe. I just use the leftover challah dough, and bake it in a loaf pan alongside the challah. I use cinnamon because we couldn’t get chocolate in Russia and we couldn’t afford it when I came to this country. Besides the cinnamon adds sweetness to the dough.”

She plates another piece of the cinnamon loaf for Ruth and continues her explanation.

“Why don’t you come over and we can bake it?  You can write down the recipe when we make it together.”

“I’d love that. But, I’m just so busy now, working a lot and trying to save money to move into my apartment. I have almost enough money to cover the security deposit.”

“It’s hard now with young people. I was lucky to marry Grandpa and we moved into our apartment so we didn’t have to live with our parents or relatives. Remember that beautiful brownstone with the large dining room.”

“I do. I remember the huge table we all sat around for holidays.”

Anna’s deep sigh is audible.

“I always dreamed that the big table was for all our family, but it was never as full as I imagined. Leaving Russia without my parents, and then my brother, and his family going to live in Hungary.”

Anna takes a sip of tea and then continues the same stories Ruth has heard many times, each time with new embellishments.

“Grandpa was tall and very handsome. You know he was what you call an activist today, but he was a socialist, and believed everyone should have enough.”

“Thank God he never joined the Communist party when he arrived in America or else, he might have been blacklisted.” Ruth quips and Anna continues her stories.

“He hated when anyone called him The Yid, and taught our children to respect themselves and their religion even though Grandpa hardly went to synagogue. Do you remember the story about your father?”

Ruth hopes she’s never heard this one before. “Not sure, tell me.”

“Your dad wanted to join a fraternity when he was going to college at NYU.”

“Never heard this story, go on.”

“One night when he went to a meeting for the fraternity, his professor was there and said something bad about Jewish people. Sidney went right up to him and told him he was Jewish, then walked out. Grandpa was proud of him, that he just left instead of making a scene. Grandpa always said we can be angry, but still have to control ourselves so we fit in.”

“But Grandma we do fit in, we’re white-skinned and not that noticeable.”

“Shah, my brother thought he fit in when he to Hungary to work there. Then the Nazis came and killed his whole family simply because they were Jewish, even though they were white-skinned and rich, too.”

“I know, I’m so sorry.” Then Ruth asks, “So what happened with Dad, did he report the professor to anyone?”

“No, he just argued with Grandpa that we must stand up to small things because they can lead to big things like the Holocaust. Years later, your daddy marched against the neo-Nazis here in America.”

“That was brave of him.”

“There’s a famous saying in Yiddish, far removed antloif, ober you zich nit noch koved.”

Ruth loves to hear Anna speak Yiddish; it’s authentic and comforting.

“Okay, translation please.”

“Runaway from an insult, but don’t chase after honor.”

Ruth is silent. Anna clears the table, speaking while putting dishes in the sink.

“Grandpa was a perfect tailor and made your father the navy-blue wool jacket with brown leather buttons. He even sewed each buttonhole by hand.”

“I know, I know, he was very talented. Dad loves that jacket.” Ruth runs her fingers through her long brown hair, then looks out the window.

Anna stands. “I’ll be right back.”

Anna walks out of the bedroom carrying a dark blue rayon coat with eyelet trim, the smell of camphor settling into the fabric.

“Grandpa made this coat for me on our first anniversary. I want you to have it.”

Ruth’s shoes crackle on the parquet floors when she puts it on and twirls around. She becomes a ballerina dancing in the living room while her mother plays Fur Elise on the piano.

“It fits perfectly. I love it.”

Moonlight glimpses in the dusk sky and the time for their visit is ending. Anna hands Ruth a large plastic shopping bag and slips a $20 bill into her pocket.

“I wrapped some things I baked for you to take home.”

Eating and food have always been a focus of Ruth’s family, not surprising that the notion of skipping a meal is as foreign to Ruth as swimming the English Channel.

Ruth takes hold of the bag and embraces her grandmother. Anna wraps her arms around her granddaughter, and even though Ruth’s broad frame towers over hers, Ruth is safe and calm.

“I love you, grandma. Dad will pick you up in two weeks and you’ll visit us all day.”

“I can’t wait. Do you want me to ask Mr. Hernandez to walk you to your car?”

Ruth grasps her car keys securely in her right hand and hides her purse under her coat.

“No, I’ll be fine, don’t worry.”

“Call me when you get home,” Anna shouts down the hall as Ruth enters the elevator. Anna closes the door, and a shadow hangs over Ruth as she leaves her grandmother. The shadow is doubt. She wonders what gives meaning to her grandmother’s life; family, faith, and appreciation of her Jewish roots, are also what matter to her.

Two weeks pass. Ruth relaxes in her childhood bedroom in her parent’s home in suburbia. Lying on a crimson Madras bedspread, surrounded by yellow walls she painted before she left for college, she listens to Stevie Nicks singing “Landslide.” A song she’s played so many times the grooves in the vinyl are thinned, and she thinks about the changes she’ll make as soon as she is able. Ruth hears the car door slam, turns off the music, and rushes down the stairs to meet her grandmother. Ruth’s father is carrying a large carton, he puts it on the walnut dining room table. Anna stands next to Ruth.

“Open it, it’s for you. I want you to have this and use it in your apartment.”

Ruth pulls open the cardboard to see an antique white porcelain canister set.

“Oh, these are so beautiful.”

She takes out piece by piece the delicate containers used often by her grandmother; cinnamon, sugar, nutmeg, tea, barley, flour, and pepper, implanted on the wooden lid of the salt container is Anna’s DNA.

“I’ll cherish this set and put it on display in my kitchen as soon as I have my own place.”

Then she asks Anna, “Why are you giving me so many of your things?”

“I guess I must get used to time moving on.”

Ruth can see the moisture gathering in Anna’s faded hazel eyes.  They sit on the beige couch in the living room, the sun beams in through a bay window.

“It’s a beautiful day, let’s go outside in the backyard and I’ll show you the new flowers Mom and I planted.”

“I’m a little chilly, and I like sitting here.”

“Is everything OK Grandma? You seem upset.”

“The other night I was listening to my favorite music, Hungarian Dances by Brahms. I thought I heard an extra sound, like a pop that didn’t belong to the piano. The next day I talked to Mrs. Hernandez and she told me that a man was shot in the park.”

Ruth moves close to her grandmother and holds her forearm.

“That’s so scary, why don’t you move?”

Ruth’s anxiety is spewing from her gut to her brain, she is sweating thinking of her grandmother in danger.

Anna responds, “I’ve been in The Bronx most of my life. I raised my children there and after Grandpa died, I moved into my brand-new building. I’m happy there and besides, where would I go?”

Ruth doesn’t usually think of her grandmother as a risk-taker, but Anna’s life held many risks, in those days when she was not yet her grandmother.

“I wish you could live with us.”

“You’re so sweet, my dear Ruthie. I love you so much but I don’t think so. I like my kitchen and to come and go as I please.” Anna holds Ruth’s hand. “The only thing is, I’m sorry I never learned to drive.”

They burst out laughing, loud enough to suffocate any fear lingering from that shot in the park. When the laughter ends, Ruth feels helpless and emotionally exhausted. She wants to run outside to the garden and witness life growing, instead of it withering away like Birch trees in the drought.

“Please Grandma, let’s go in the backyard to see the mums and blue hydrangea I planted. I’ll cut some basil and rosemary for you to take home. You can use the fresh herbs in your soup.”

Anna follows Ruth to the garden.

It is an afternoon in June when Ruth comes home from work, and her mother meets her at the door. Her mother’s eyes are bloodshot dark, pupils dilated like a feral cat in a frigid winter storm.  Within milliseconds Ruth asks,

“What happened?”

“Grandma Anna is in the hospital. She was mugged.”

“Oh, my God.”

Nausea releases the bile in the back of Ruth’s throat and her legs weaken. She sits next to her mother on the sofa, where just weeks ago she sat with her grandmother.

“Someone followed Grandma off the elevator and pushed her into her apartment. Neighbors called the police when they saw the door was left open. The police found her locked in the bathroom, in the bathtub with her hands tied together.”

Ruth has chills running through her body as though she’s watching a horror flick and unable to close her eyes. When Ruth’s father arrives home, they drive to the hospital in his new blue Buick. Relieved that Anna is out of intensive care, they walk in unison into the room near the nurse’s station. Anna is lying still in an oversized hospital bed, the muscles of her face appear tight, lines on her forehead and lips deepened and her breath is fast. Ruth sits next to her on the stiff bed and reaches for her hand. Anna grasps it.

“Grandma, I’m so sorry this happened to you.”

Ruth kisses Anna but there is no response. After a while, the family walks out into the hall. A tall doctor in green scrubs waves to them. They huddle together to call the play, and the doctor speaks as if he has only 30 seconds.

“She’s not eating, she’s on a hunger strike.”

Ruth looks straight into the doctor’s face.

“A hunger strike, do you think she’s Gandhi? She’s depressed and in shock don’t you understand?”

Ruth’s father holds her. She rests her head on his sturdy shoulder.

“It’s her time, my darling. God will help us through this.”

Anna doesn’t die in the hospital. She is sent to a nursing home for a couple of weeks and never returns to her small apartment which secured her independence. After the funeral, Ruth sits in her car, shrouded in grief. She plays her favorite Bob Dylan CD and knows the words by heart. She sings along to “Pressing On,” and drives ahead, moving forward, comforted by knowing her relationship with her grandmother is with her forever. Ruth learns to accept that Anna was content with her life in The Bronx until that one horrific day when she was violated, and her survival threatened.

A week later in the heavy humidity of summer, Ruth, and her mother visit Anna’s apartment. Young men in red berets and sleeveless black tee shirts decorated with a masonic eye staring from their back, stand out against the muted grays of the buildings. The Guardian Angels, are in full-force policing the neighborhood. Under their watchful eyes, they take the elevator to the 20th floor and begin to bring Anna’s lifetime to a close. Before Ruth’s mother puts the keys in the door, Ruth takes hold of her arm.

“I’m not sure I can go inside.”

This is harder for Ruth than moving out of the apartment she shared with boyfriend # 3.

“Why do we have to do this so soon.? Why don’t we have a plan for how to do it, a timeline for a few visits, and what are we doing with all of Grandma’s things?”

Ruth glides into the crux of her mother’s arms, the smell of ivory soap, and her soft embrace soothing her.

“Sweetheart, I know how you feel, this is very difficult. Your wonderful memories of Grandma will always be with you, they haven’t left. We must do it sooner than later. Your father doesn’t want to keep paying rent on the apartment, and we don’t know if anyone will break in and steal her things. We’re strong and can tackle this task together. Grandma would be proud of us.”

Ruth’s mother opens the door and takes her hand as they enter the apartment. The sweet whiff of vanilla welcomes them in.

“Sweetheart, you can keep whatever things you want.”

Ruth diligently wraps English Bone China dishes and Hummel statutes in yesterday’s newspaper, hoping that packing away her grandmother’s belongings will give her a sense of closure. She takes the shiny silverplate candle sticks that Anna used for the Sabbath.

“Mom, Can I have these?”

“Of course. Are you going to become religious?”

“Maybe. But I want to start my ritual of lighting candles on Friday nights like Grandma. She told me that we light candles to give thanks for our capacity to love.”

Her mother smiles. “What a lovely thing to say.”

Ruth reaches for a carton on the top shelf of the hall closet and it falls onto the floor and opens. She pulls out the contents.

“Mom, look at these, three bathing suits, her rubber swimming cap with the chin strap still attached, and water shoes she always called her scuffs.”

Their laughter begins like a gentle ripple in a brook and then escalates to the surf of an ocean.

“Grandma loved to swim. Remember when you were twelve and we went to Atlantic City and she came with us?”

“I do, I shared a room with her. Grandma woke up early every morning and wanted me to go with her to the beach. She thought swimming in salt water was good for her arthritis. I didn’t even know what arthritis was when I was twelve, but I went with her because she gave me $20 for the boardwalk.”

They start laughing all over again. Then Ruth’s mother stacks Anna’s clothes into a large carton. She reaches into the mahogany dresser drawer and feels something tucked under slips and stockings tied to a nylon nightgown. It’s an over-stuffed manila envelope addressed to Ruth.

“Look what I found.”

Ruth takes it, holds it, and hesitates to open it. Her stomach is quivering, breathing is shallow. She lifts the tab, and in the envelope, are ten one-hundred-dollar bills, and a note in her grandmother’s uneven handwriting.

“Ruthie, Use this for your apartment. It’s the money I put away for you from selling Challah and holiday cakes. I want you to have it. I’ll love you forever. Grandma Anna.”


Edna Schneider holds a bachelor’s degree from Emerson College and a master’s degree in Speech-Language Pathology from LIU. Previous writing experience includes short stories (Thewhiskyblot, July 2022, Grande Dame, March 2023), and two non-fiction books (Living Thin, and Sure, a self-published memoir). Prior to Speech-Language Pathology, she worked as a professional puppeteer.

One thought on “Essential Stories – Edna Schneider

  1. Joanie

    Beautifully written, wonderful story! So much of this is reminiscent of so many Jewish grandparents and their families – including my family. Pretty much in tears (happy and sad) when the story was done!


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