The invitation is not a surprise. She has spoken to Avi twice since their meeting. During the first call, he has told her that he will be getting married.
“But you’re only eighteen?”
“Yes,” he answers. “Eighteen.” I hope you will come to the wedding. And Bess and Sam too.” He speaks in English, although his first language—the one in which he is fluent—is Yiddish. “You will come?”
“We will be there,” she tells him during their second conversation. She thinks he is pleased.
“Do you like to dance?” he asks suddenly.
“Yes,” she answers.
“You will dance with my kallah.”
When she hesitates, he realizes that she does not know the word. “My bride,” he explains.
“Ahh,” she responds as yet unaware of the mehitza which will separate the men from the women. She will be surprised by the swirling circles of modestly dressed girls who will surround the young woman in white.
It will be weeks before a third phone call. Months before an invitation to visit the couple.
Years of learning to navigate this unfamiliar world. The strangeness will never disappear entirely. But their relationship will be far greater than she might have expected. Better than she had dared to hope.
And there will be Sam.
She reminds Sam of the miniature glass ballerina that his mother had inherited from her mother. Not until he was seven years old was he allowed to touch it, and then, only with great care.
“She is fragile,” his mother has told him. “Do you know what fragile means?”
It wasn’t hard to guess. He had been staring at the ballerina through the window of the etagere for as long as he could remember. Four inches in height, one glass leg bent against the other. Glass hair knotted in a bun on top of her head. There were other figurines: a swan, a clown, a bird. But he had only ever wanted to hold the ballerina with her tiny pointed shoes and her delicate fingers.
The feeling comes back to him now, after all these years later.
It is impossible not to stare. How old can she be? There are small creases at the edges of her pale eyes— eyes a color closer to transparent than it is to blue. Her hair pulled tight and knotted in a bun on top of head is, at least in daylight, a yellow so opaque it is nearly white. Her arms are long, as are the fingers with which she holds the handle of a battered suitcase. She wears a loose dress in a faded shade of pink, tied at the waist with a ribbon of a slightly darker color.
Fragile, he thinks.
Aren’t they all? He knows her story—better, he supposes, than he knows most. “Sam,” he introduces himself and offers his arm as she exits the Arrivals area at the terminal. She has texted him to let him know that the plane has landed. He has seen her photograph several weeks earlier. But the psychologist’s description would have been enough. “Ephemeral.”
Sam takes the small rolling suitcase from Nina and places it in the trunk. He opens the door to the passenger’s side and closes it once she is seated. “Please wear the seat belt,” he reminds her and waits until he hears the click.
And then there is silence. No point in making small talk. She won’t speak. That much he assumes. Not that she can’t. “She probably won’t,” Bess has told him. At least not with a stranger, which he is. Although she knows that he knows why she is here with him heading towards a high rise building in the heart of the City. She will spend a night or two maybe three at most in the building until they figure out what to do.
Sam asks if she might want to listen to music. He turns to see her vague smile. Easy jazz, he decides and finds what he hopes will sooth.
He is driving more slowly than usual conscious of his fear that she might shatter. Just as the ballerina had shattered when he dropped it to the floor all those years ago.
When they stop at a light, he glances at her hands, the fingers laced tightly in her lap.
“Almost there,” he says as they move forward in the traffic. He might have offered to drop her off at the door. Might have said, “You can go on ahead, I’ll park and bring up your suitcase.” But he decides against it. “Too risky. She might change her mind. Disappear into the streets of the City. No, he will stay with her until he turns her safely over to Bess.
Just then, just as he is thinking that he might actually have to hold her hand to keep her from evaporating, she speaks. “Coffee? Can we get coffee?”
“I’m sure there will be coffee for you when you arrive. They always have something waiting—coffee, tea, cake—something light.”
“No—no… her voice is quivering. “Now. Can we get coffee now? Sit down someplace. Please.”
In all of the times he has escorted people—mostly women, sometimes with children, occasionally young men or boys—in all of those times, never has anyone asked him to delay the introduction.
The Starbucks is a half block from Bess’ home which doubles as Pinkey’s Project headquarters. They walk. Sam rolls the suitcase avoiding people and cracks in the sidewalk. She orders a small black, full strength.
“It will make you jittery,” he warns.
It isn’t his place to ask questions. Maybe she is having second thoughts. Or maybe she just wants a cup of coffee. She is probably anticipating a lot of questions—unware that Bess will give her time to unwind. Might not even meet with her until the following morning.
“His birthday is today,” she says. “He is eighteen.”
Sam acknowledges with a nod. Not his role to become involved. He’s been told only what is necessary. A woman will arrive at three forty in the afternoon. She will have flown in from across the country. She will be alone. Her mother is deceased. She is looking for her son.”
That’s it. The extent of the background—that and a vague description. “Blonde, thin, ephemeral.”
Should he ask about the birthday? No, he decides, it would be unkind. Or would it be polite? “Whose birthday?” he tilts his head.
“My son’s. He is eighteen today.”
Sam tries to calculate. This woman with the nearly transparent eyes and impossibly small wrists looks to be in her twenties, maybe early thirties. But her eyes are older, and there are barely perceptible creases in her forehead.
“I had him when I was fifteen,” she answers without his having asked.
They took him away. I held him for just a few minutes, and they took him away. He was so small, with a tiny mouth and fingers and toes. He was wrapped in a blanket. I kissed him on the head. And then he was gone,”
Sam does not pry. Does not prompt her to speak. Holding the coffee cup in both hands, she continues. “I’ve asked if Pinkey’s Project could help me find my boy. I’ve thought about him every day, but I don’t know his name and I can’t afford a lawyer. I read about Bess in an interview online. What do you think?”
He couldn’t help remembering the broken ballerina. “I think, if anyone can help you find him, it will be Bess.”
The guest room in the private wing of Bess’ apartment is lovely. The website has described it as “A place to unwind and refocus as you plan the next steps.” This is certainly that and more. Dinner is delivered on a tray. A hot shower. Sleep. “We will talk in the morning.” Bess touches Nina’s hand. “Don’t overthink this.”
It would be hard to overthink the idea of meeting her son. It is, after all, a familiar ritual—one that begins the moment she awakens each morning and with which she closes her eyes at night. In the process, he remains an infant wrapped in a hospital blanket. In reality, she knows, he has grown, changed, that now he is nearly a man. Does he resemble his mother? Fair and slim? Or his father? The name of whom she knows, has always known, but who has never been informed of the child.
“I was a girl,” she tells Bess when they meet for breakfast in small office across from the guest room where she has slept. I was a sophomore in high school He was a senior. Two years older. He was the only boy I’d been with. We said we were in love. I don’t know. Maybe we were. My parents drove me far away to another state to live in a house with other pregnant girls. When the baby was born, they gave him up for adoption. My mother told me the family was religious. She said this would be a good life for the boy. It would be a mitzvah.
“How did she know the family was religious?”
“Because my mother’s cousin is religious. She arranged for it. When this happened—you know, when I got pregnant—my mother called her. Her cousin said she would take care of things.” Nina swallows hard and continues. “My mother held the baby while the orderly wheeled me to the front door of the hospital. My father was waiting in the car. My mother helped me out of the wheelchair and into the back seat. When we drove away I realized that the baby wasn’t with us. They had already given him away. For all of these years I’ve wondered about him, imagined seeing him in a crowd, recognizing him.”
“And the father?”
“I never spoke to him after we moved. He doesn’t know. I’ve Googled him a few times through the years. Last I checked, he was married and has a daughter. She must be four years old.”
Bess shakes her head in an up and down motion, a non-judgmental acknowledgement that she understands.
Nina hands Bess an index card. “My mother’s cousin. I found it when I was going through the papers after my mother died. I don’t know the last time they spoke to each other. The cousin never came to our house. I don’t know if she’s still alive. My father says he has no idea, no interest.
“A start,” Bess tells her. “You will stay here for a few days. After that, we’ll find you a place to live until we get this sorted out.”
Nina returns to her room in Bess’ apartment. A space designated for guests through the organization known as Pinkey’s Project named for Bess’ late husband. A not-for profit company dedicated to giving people a second chance. Nina lies face down on the bed with its rose colored quilt and she waits.
Sorted out. Those were the words her father had used when she was barely fifteen. Unlike her mother who had screamed and wailed in a frenzy of fury and disbelief, her father had touched her shoulder gently and said quietly, “We’ll get this sorted out.”
And he had. They couldn’t stay where they were, that much was certain. “We’ll have to move from here,” he’d said quite matter of factly. He taught English in the high school his daughter attended. There would be talk for sure. He would be embarrassed, maybe fired. “I’ll find a teaching job somewhere else, and we’ll leave.”
“Will we come back?”
The prospect of returning, even the desire to return, was less than likely as the years progressed. While her mother ranted, her father found a place—a small home for pregnant teenagers—although that is not the term used in their printed materials. The home was located thirty miles outside of the city in which he found a position in a large regional high school. While she waited out the seven months remaining until the baby’s birth in the company of three other girls with bulging middles, her parents sorted it out in a small apartment near the school where her father was employed.
Even now, Nina pushes away the memory of her parents’ visits to see her. Her mother’s accusations, her father’s stoicism. “How’s school?” he would ask as though the daily sessions with tutors were the reason for her living with other unwed mothers. “Math okay? Science? Ever do any experiments? English? What are you reading?”
Sometime after the fifth month when she was able to feel real movement, an elbow maybe a knee beneath the skin stretched across her abdomen—sometime after the fifth month, her father—once again it was her father—explained that the adoption would take place. “Discreetly. There will be no fuss. You’ll see.” Not that he’d had much to do with it, or so he said. “Your mother has spoken to her cousin, the religious one. We’ll give the baby to a Hasidic couple. The wife can’t have any children. The baby will be well cared for. Now, dear, just sign your name here and soon you can get back to normal life.”
But what did he know? How could he know? How could he have known? She was, after all, a child herself.
She waits. For years. And now, for several days. Someone delivers breakfast to the guest room. In the evening, she dines with Bess in Bess’ suite on the other side of the apartment.
“We’ve been in touch with the cousin,” Bess says. “Her phone number has changed, but she lives where she has always lived. She referred us to the agency that handled the adoption. Are you sure that you want us to proceed?” Bess’ expression is serious. “Do you understand how difficult this might be for you? We might have to hire an attorney. Pinkey’s Project will pay if the situation arises, but there is no guarantee that we’ll succeed. The young man may not want to meet you. His family may object, and he may defer to them. You could be opening a wound. You think about it,” Bess suggests and pats Nina’s hand.
“I have.” There is no hesitation in Nina’s response. “I have thought about this for eighteen years. All my life, I’ve thought of him, imagined him. Wondered if he’s happy. Wondered if he knows. And if he does, does he think of me? Does he care? No more thinking.”
“They told me when I was four, or maybe five,” he explains to his kallah. He says this in Yiddish as they sit across from one another at a wrought iron table in her parents’ backyard. Two of her nephews are playing nearby. “They said adoption meant that Hashem allowed them to choose me. When I was older—old enough to understand— I thought about asking questions. But I was afraid it would hurt my parents’ feelings, that they would think I didn’t love them. Now, though, my first mother, the one who gave birth to me, is working with someone who contacted the adoption agency. This morning, the director of the agency called our house and asked to speak to me. He said my birth mother—that’s what he called her—wants to meet me. I told him I need to ask my parents. He said, I could do that, I could ask for their opinion. But, because I am eighteen, I am considered an adult by the state, so I can make up my own mind. He asked me to call him with my decision.”
Nina tries to keep the anxiety at bay as she moves to the furnished one bedroom apartment provided by Pinkey’s Project. “Another person will be staying in the guest wing at headquarters,” Bess has explained. “The place where you will stay now is not extravagant, but I think you will find it acceptable. Sam will help you settle in.”
There isn’t much to unpack. The few items in her worn suitcase fit easily into the closet and the small dresser. The refrigerator has been stocked with essentials: milk, eggs, fresh vegetables and some fruit. Sam gives the place a once over, then hands the key to Nina. Before shutting the door behind him, he turns to look at her. From where she stands in the center of the room, the sunlight coming through the window outlines her narrow fame. Forlorn. The word comes to mind. She is forlorn. “Would you like me to stay for a while?”
She says she would. They order sandwiches for lunch. She barely eats. He tells her that Bess is his aunt. He has worked for her for several years. He likes what he does. “Mostly fundraising, but sometimes,” and here he laughs softly “sometimes I actually get to meet a person who needs the Project’s help.”
“Like me?” She closes her eyes. Her eyelashes, he notices, are darker than her hair.
The call comes at eleven p.m. Nina, still fully dressed, is lying on the couch. Unable to sleep she has turned on the TV. In the seconds between the time she sees Bess’ name on the cell phone screen and the time she answers, her head swims with possibilities—‘yes’ being the least likely. Especially considering the time of night.
“I know it’s late, but I thought you’d want to know right away.” Nina can hear the confidence in Bess’ voice. “I just hung up with the adoptive mother. They’ve talked it over and agreed to meet with you—the three of them—the husband and wife and your son. His name is Avi, short for Avraham. We’ll set a date for later this week. Are you alright?”
Sam asks Nina the same question when he picks her up at the apartment. He and Bess will accompany Nina to meet her son. “And his adoptive parents,” Bess adds. “They will be there too.”
The town where Avi lives, is simply that, a town. Other than the men walking in twos and threes in mid-calf length black coats and black hats with round brims, other than the women with kerchiefs wound on their heads or small hats perched on top of wigs, other than the swarms of children playing in clusters everywhere, the town looks not unlike any suburban community, the homes like any others.
In the sleepless nights before the meeting, Nina has spent hours researching the history of this once small village founded by a group of people who had survived the Holocaust and managed somehow to perpetuate and pass down their way of life in a tree shaded enclave dotted today with single family houses, small apartment complexes, school buildings and strip malls featuring bakeries, grocery stores and clothing shops.
The anticipation is palpable as the compact car driven by Bess passes through the gate where a guard takes their names, speaks into his cell phone and directs them to a narrow street. It is just past six p.m. on Tuesday evening. A van is parked in the driveway, the number seven is painted on the mailbox. Hydrangea bushes are in full bloom against a white fence.
Nina takes a deep breath as Sam rings the doorbell. He touches his hand to the kippa clipped to his hair in deference to the dress code. In advance of the gathering, Bess has contacted a rabbi with whom she has worked in the past. He has advised a kippa for Sam and skirts or dresses for the women. “Nothing sleeveless, out of respect.”
The woman who answers the door wears no makeup. Her head covering is turban-like. She holds a small child on her hip, another clutches the folds of her skirt. A teenage girl takes the younger of the two from the woman who utters some words in Yiddish before saying, in English, “Come in,” and with a motion of her hand ushers them through the front room. Nina notices the sparse furnishings: a couch, two chairs, an oval carpet, the setting overshadowed by floor to ceiling shelves filled with oversize books bound in burgundy and dark blue. An arched doorway leads to a dining room in the center of which a large table is spread with cookies, fruit, small plates, a pitcher of lemonade and tall glasses.
There is a brief, awkward silence as Bess, Nina and Sam settle into chairs. “Nina glances towards the far end of the table where a slim man with a dark, slightly graying beard and long dark side curls speaks. “I am Arron,” he says. “Avi’s father. And this is Rina, Avi’s mother. He gestures to the woman who has greeted them at the door.
At the word “mother,” a lump forms in Nina’s throat. Seated to Aaron’s right sits a young man in the image of Nina—the same pale skin, the nearly transparent blue eyes, blonde side curls and long, thin fingers drumming quietly on the table top covered in a lace cloth overlaid with plastic. Bess gives her name followed by Sam.
“And I am Nina.” She speaks quietly, nearly whispering. It is impossible for all of those at the table to ignore the resemblance between Avi and his birth mother. So startling is their appearance that the two could be siblings. There are, after all, a mere fifteen years between them.
Nina has been warned not to look these religious men in the eye, but the boy across the table, despite his having reached majority, is not simply a man. He is her child. She straightens her shoulders, leans forward and speaks. Her voice is strong now. “May I say something? There is something I would like to say.”
Avi’s father nods his assent.
“All my life—nearly all my life, I have dreamed of you. Not just you, Avi, but all of you. I’ve wondered if you were kind people, if you, Avi, were happy. I knew that your life would be different from mine. You would grow up in another world. But I prayed. Yes.” She closes her eyes briefly. “Not the way you pray, but I prayed to God that you were alright. I have never stopped loving you.”
As the lemonade and cookies are being served, Avi excuses himself and returns moments later with a cluster of children. “My brothers and sisters,” he announces. The teenage girl with the small child who had appeared on her mother’s hip, another toddler, four boys in white shirts and black pants ranging in age from seven or eight to just past Bar Mitzvah and an older boy with cherubic cheeks and dark eyes. “My twin,” Avi says and pauses before adding. “Not really, but we are the same age. We are adopted. All of us.” He says this with pride, his eyes moving from his siblings to his adoptive parents and then to Nina.
So much love, Nina thinks. “You are lucky to have such a wonderful family,” she says.
“This is true,” Avi answers. “And, I am lucky to have such a birth mother.”’
This last brings tears to her eyes. “My son,” she thinks, but does not say. “My son.”
Anna Gotlieb is a wife, a mother and a grandmother. Known as Annie to her friends, she is Granny Annie to her children’s children. She is the author of Between the Lines, C.I.S. Publishers, 1992; In Other Words, Targum Press, 1996; Full Circle, Author House, 2008; and her newest work entitled Pinkey’s, 2022, BookLocker. The first two books are collections of first person vignettes. The last two, including the recently released Pinkey’s are novels.