PEGGY RAMBACH

 

Memoir
by Olga Kuminova PhD

A square kitchen stool on top of which the plastic garbage bucket stood, exactly fitting between two sections of kitchen cabinets. Its top was pale blue plastic. The top lifted, and there was a secret compartment inside. I can’t remember when I found out about the secret compartment. When I did, I found clean, neatly torn rag straps inside. It would be several years before I understood what these rags were really for. I still didn’t understand, why under the garbage bucket though? It was clean enough there, inside the stool, but the choice of hiding place still strikes me as rather strange – and certainly a thing to remember.
If I still remember it right, the kitchen table was covered with the same pale blue plastic, and its edge was nicely finished with a much darker blue, cobalt plastic strip. The underside of the table top was naked wood, and it was covered with some waxy substance that I could never keep from peeling with my nails. I remember Mother wiping clean the blue surface of the table one day when I was maybe seven, and I sat there with my back to the gas stove and thought, how can she keep on doing it so calmly when she knows that one day she will die?

Some other day, when I was in sixth grade, I came into the kitchen exhausted as usual after school and the stuffy bus ride, and deeply shaken by what I learned that day in the physics class: if you take the nucleus of an atom to be the size of a small coin, the farthest electrons will be as far as half a kilometer from it, which meant that everything, even the toughest of materials, as well as our bodies, was actually emptiness, empty space.
Mother was sitting at the table, having a cup of tea with a bread and butter topped with black caviar. It was one of the rare occasions when we had a big supply of it in the fridge, following my Siberian uncle’s visit. She made another caviar bread and butter for me, and I told her the scary news. She said, “Well, that’s really shocking. I certainly see what you mean. But the caviar bread and butter is still here, in any case – so it can’t be that bad?”

The window above the table was broad and tall, divided into several long vertical panes, which made the kitchen look a little like a veranda, open to the moist crystal light of spring mornings when the vine arbor outside was still bare. In winter, when we ate our breakfast of fried eggs and cocoa that Father used to quickly fix for us before school, the window was filled with that deep, bottomless transparent dark blue that precedes the cold urban dawn. I cannot call that color of light anything short of eternal, because it is the closest thing to heaven that I ever saw so close to our window.

In winter we would leave the house before daylight, to take a bus or the half-hour walk to school where Mother worked and where we studied too, for several years. When it rained and we were on the bus, the street lights shone through the streaming windows like huge dandelion heads made of wiggling splashes of orange light. No matter what mood I was in, it always felt like I saw the street lights through tears. But the lights that I most looked forward to seeing were the ones that we passed when crossing the railroad junction. The gentle piercing blue of those ones, not resembling anything in nature, looked at us from a distance, out of the misty expanse filled with smoke, rain and dawn. Every morning these lights beckoned us into the transporting space of the railroad, which one day one could buy a ticket and exit by.

One very cold and drizzly evening in late February, I think I was in the seventh grade, I went to my friend Svetlana’s place, and we talked as usual, and as usual she put on the cassettes she had of Michael Jackson, and “Modern Talking,” and Sandra (whoever remembers Sandra now), and we danced, the two of us in her room, in front of her triple mirror, as we used to do. It was a couple of years before I and my sisters got a tape recorder of our own. Until then, we had an old reel-type recorder that my aunt used to operate so coolly before she got married and moved to Kiev to pursue a wife-and-mother career where no one expected her to be the cool one, anymore, with electronic appliances. So, after she moved out, one could say we had no tape recorder. It was rather late, about 10 or even later when I headed for home, and as I came out into the back street, I was so struck with awe and wonder that I had to stop. All the trees, with all their smallest branches, stood filled with light; they all radiated that sad, never-strong-enough against the night, orange and pale-green light of the street lanterns. The drizzle had frozen on the branches as it fell, and they were all glazed with a thick crystal layer and jingled against one another in a totally surreal, New Year kind of way, under the occasional restrained breaths of wind.

This was even better than snow. But of course it could never replace snow, the magical visitation from the sky that we waited for every winter and usually were blessed with, often twice or even three times in a winter. The day before snow was actually my favorite kind of a winter day – it was as dark and somber as it could get, and filled with ecstatic expectation. The dark storm-colored clouds would moved so low, slow and thick it gave me a feeling of being completely shut off from the larger sky, sheltered and cozy and at home in the streets of my own town and the kitchen of our own home. Life made perfect sense on those days – especially if it was a Saturday, the day before the day off, and mother was home baking pies. I walk home from school on a darkening Saturday noon, which doesn’t feel like a regular Saturday noon at all, but a beginning of some other, completely different and new life, where everything will be transformed, and we will look out of the window and see the ground and trees and buildings all different, giving off tender white light, and we won’t have to leave home if we don’t feel like leaving.

There were rumors, which I never knew about until I was grown up, that our house was built on an old Tatar cemetery – though I’m sure the cemetery wasn’t razed when the Tatars were expelled, in 1944, because the house was built in 1927 – so at least it had to be a less fresh wound. But who knows, perhaps the sense of almost palpable sadness and inexorable, persistent reality of this place, which still feels to me more real than most other places on earth, might come from that. And perhaps the snow was about the only thing that could take that away for a while – as well as the spectacular spring blossoming of the fruit garden and the flowers that my grandparents had surrounded the house with.

I think there was only one tree that wasn’t a fruit tree – the little pine that my grandmother kept saying that she would like to have in the garden, behind the vine arbor. In the beginning of December 1984 my grandfather bought a beautiful, big, well-rounded sapling of the Crimean pine that looked like a perfect New Year tree. It’s a shame I can’t remember whether he brought it into the yard, just before or just after my grandmother got the heart attack. He planted it in the morning of December 6th – I just hope I remember it right – and in the evening of that day she died. They all, Father, Mother, and Granddad, came in by the front door about 11 at night. Mother was carrying a big pillow, which was so strange and wrong it all at once conveyed the sense of a catastrophe. Grandfather said, “Our grandmother is no longer.” The pine tree never took root.

Grandma
excerpt
by Niki Kotsenko

The last time I went to visit my grandmother in the hospital, I took along a digital camera. It’s not that I’m such a fan of photography, or the type who always carries a camera. Nor did I want to take pictures of her so I could remember how she looked. I had pictures of her in which she was already old but still quite vigorous. There was a whole album from her wedding to her second husband, which took place when she was eighty. I also had pictures of her in the Choir for Old Russian Immigrants, or whatever it was called, with her dressed in a crisp white blouse, smiling her reserved smile, her soft white hair cut short like a bob.
The first thing I noticed was that the yogurt she refused to eat two days ago was still there on the table. Her hospital room was clean enough, with two more beds and a large window overlooking the city, but the table near her bed was loaded with cups, saucers and containers, a bottle of mineral water and that yogurt. The last time I came I tried to feed it to her but she choked on the second spoonful. Her cough had a dangerous ring to it, like something was bursting inside her. It lasted for a few minutes and then she sank back in exhaustion and refused to eat.

The yogurt stood on a shelf just beneath the tabletop, on which everything was more or less hidden. This lower shelf was perfectly aligned with her sleeping face. I took the camera out of the bag, put it in Video mode, pressed ‘Play’, and positioned it on the shelf, directed at grandma. I figured neither she nor the staff would notice the it there. I felt as if the decision to leave it there, just like the decision to take it with me in the first place, was somehow made without me.

Grandma’s Jaundice made her skin turn yellow in all the places that were formerly white while the red spots and lumps remained as they were. Those lumps of skin and fat, which the sun sprouted on her face after we came to Israel fifteen years ago, were as white and crunchy as dried dough. They were the size of raisins, and seemed to be simply glued to her face, as if I could just peel them off with my nail.

I walked around the bed to sit on the hard plastic chair beside her and woke her up with a touch on her shoulder. Suffering from Dementia, my grandmother hadn’t recognized me once in three years. Every time I had to explain that I was her son, stranger or husband, but her grandson, Ruben, coming to visit her. She’d nod slightly, less with acknowledgment than skepticism. If I say so... then she’d ask: “why?” And I’d tell her: “To see how you were doing. Because I love you.” This never sounded convincing to me. Usually she didn’t seem convinced either.

This time, though, she recognized me straight away, that invisible spark going off in her eyes. “Hello” she said. “Thank you, thank you for coming, for remembering your grandmother.” She put the emphasis on the word ‘remembering’. I wondered, did she think this was my first visit in three years or did she acknowledge her own senility? Was that even possible, could she remember not remembering?
“Of course, of course.” I said. “How are you feeling? Does something hurt?”
“Oh yes. Back.”
“Let’s turn you on your side.”

We joined efforts; she clutching the rail of the bed with both hands and pulling herself with a grunt and me pushing her hip and shoulder. After turning, I saw she was facing the camera, I hoped it was concealed by the darkness or that she would not be able to recognize it for what it was. Her back was painted with impressionistic dots and patches of dark yellow and bright red. For a few minutes I gently massaged the soft mushy surface of her skin. It was hanging so loosely, so surrendered, that I was tempted to smooth out the wrinkles and tuck in the sides. I took my time massaging her, maybe hoping she’d notice the camera and catch me red handed.

On her back again, she sighed and without looking at me said, “They hanged him.” The calmness of her voice suggested that this was a common occurrence she had resigned herself to long ago. She never talked of such things at the nursing home. I wondered if she knew she was no longer in Stalinist Russia and that she didn’t need to worry about anybody being hanged.
“Who?” I asked.

She motioned with her head in the direction of the open door. Beyond it, a doctor with round glasses was joking with the secretaries at the front desk. At first I had no idea who she might be referring to but then I got it. Two days ago there was a man in the bed next to her, now he was gone – either released, transferred or buried. No, wait, but why did she motion the other way? Or maybe she motioned back, or up, as when speaking about the past. On an impulse I asked, “Victor?”
“Yes.” She said, but smiling. I wasn’t sure if she connected the parts of the conversation. Victor, my father, her only son, died just before we moved to Israel. Supposedly, he hanged himself. I was just a six year old; she had never talked to me about this and hadn’t taken me to the funeral. Maybe she knew something. Maybe she was trying to tell me something important about my father.
“Who hanged him?” I asked.
She looked away, apparently without understanding my question. Was she lucid or demented?
“Who hanged him?” I asked again.
She looked at me but said nothing.
I slammed my fist on my knee. I shook the rail of her bed, making the metal clatter. “Oh, what do you know grandma? Do you even remember your name?”
Throughout, she looked at me sternly. Only after a few seconds she relented and looked at the ceiling.
“What is my name?” I asked.
She opened her mouth to speak, stopped, and then, very unsure of herself, said, “Victor.”
“Good.” I said and smiled. She smiled too, reassured.
I asked her if she was thirsty.
“Yes.” She said.

After I poured some mineral water into a cup, she made an effort to raise her head slightly and I supported it with my hand. She sipped from the cup, a few drops sliding down her chin, and then held it for a while, gazing sideways. I took it away from her and she thanked me again. She lay back and was silent for a while. I leaned back on the chair and relaxed. The sun was setting, its light filtered through the dusty window and gave the room a shade of bronze.

“They hanged him.” She said again, speaking to no one in particular. Her eyes were on the ceiling.
“Grandma, its Israel. They don’t hang people here. Don’t worry.”
She gave me another one of her noncommittal nods. “Maybe it was for the best.” She said.
I didn’t know how to respond to that, didn’t feel capable of reassuring her. She wasn’t making any sense and on top of that she was senile and immensely stubborn.

I sighed and went to open the window. A cool breeze greeted me from outside. The sun had almost set and the PA system called all patients, visitors and medical personnel to evening prayer and the halls quickly emptied. “Springs of Salvation” hospital was situated at the center of the Jewish Orthodox city Bnei Brak and most of its inhabitants were from the surrounding neighborhoods. For a moment I was tempted to bring grandma, the lifelong atheist and party member to hear the prayer. I imagined the two of us, standing between the aisles of a synagogue, she in her wheel chair and hospital gown and me standing behind her, tightly clutching the handles; we are surrounded by praying people, surgeons and cancer patients, Yeshiva students who came to visit their shriveled rabbi, pregnant women holding infants; the Hazzan begins to sing, his voice fills the air and my grandmother’s face lights up, her eyes open wide as the warm light of the setting sun glows through the western windows. I put a hand on her shoulder and she presses it with her feeble palm.

Portrait of a Father
Excerpt
by Jen Shafer

It was warmer than anyone expected it to be, much too warm for September, but the sky was still light, so we were outside. This was farm country after all. Down our block, farmers and their wives tended their gardens, mowed their lawns, and put a fresh coat of paint on their garages. If the sun was up, so were they. That’s how it is in Nebraska.

I licked my lips nervously and tasted the salt of my sweat.
“We’re not going in until you do it right!”

I pouted, sighed, and stamped both feet on the ground, one on either side of my blue Snoopy bicycle. Dad mopped sweat off his balding head with his red bandana, squinted into the setting sun and waited for me to obey. When I didn’t, he stormed up to where I was sitting, clipped one hand under the seat, wrapped the other around the handlebars, and lifted the bike clean off the ground with me still sitting on it, legs flailing uselessly in the air.

Dad carried me up the block to the corner and set the bike down with a thud. With one hand still clenching the bicycle seat he commanded, “Peddle.” And I peddled. I pushed hard pulling my father behind me. When he began to wheeze and gasp for breath, he let go of the seat announcing that he’d done so a few seconds later.
My father’s meat and potatoes lifestyle made big men. Strong men. Farmers who wrestled with bulls, lifted bales of hay by themselves, and hitched planters to tractors without assistance. And by God their daughters rode bicycles.

Immediately my bike went down on Mrs. Roundtree’s perfectly manicured yard. Snoopy grinned at me from the bicycle seat as the wheels continued to spin and the left pedal penetrated the thick, cool grass. I didn’t get up. I laid there staring at the ever-so-slowly darkening sky, the unfinished siding on our house and the brown expanse of our own unplanted yard—one perfect for digging holes in which to bury secrets—like the fact I was six years old and couldn’t ride a bike.

“Get up,” I heard my father say. “Do it right!” I imagined the grass in Mrs. Roundtree’s yard growing right over me and the cursed bike, swallowing us into a dark pit where people slept in and let the weeds grow. I felt the previous failures of the evening on my left hand, my right hip, and the entire length of my right leg. I smoothed some skin on my palm and a drop of blood oozed out. I started to cry.

My mom ran out of our house, spied her baby lying helplessly and scooped me off the lawn—a savior. I don’t remember what she said to my father but I’m sure they discussed it later—one of the conversations that took place “after the kids are asleep,” while my sisters listened through the wall.

Shuli
by Megan Straughan

Suddenly something drops, and when it smashes on the linoleum floor, a jelly like substance splatters everywhere. I watch in horror as a flame lights up the fuel and burns into my calf. Shuli’s family springs into action. They wave dishcloths like Tibetan prayer flags, as they try to smother the flames, but amidst the shouting of the other guests, the dishcloths themselves go up in flames. One dishcloth lands on a chair, and the flames erode the navy blue upholstery. “Mayim! Mayim! Mayim!,” a chorus shouts behind me. Shuli snatches the water bottles off the tables and douses the flames. One woman grabs a bottle of Coke. Then, the fire is out. I am still standing where I was when it started--dumbfounded with water and coke lapping at my shoes. Shuli’s youngest son walks in. “What the hell happened?! Who did this?,” he asks.
And that, my friends, is how you make a great impression at someone’s Sukkot dinner.

Before I headed off to study global health medicine in Be’er Sheva, I daydreamed about how cool it’d be to have a Jewish mom—the overbearing, protective, worry-wart kind of woman who would lavish on me food and love. Then, after only a short while, Shuli adopted me as her own.

My first month in Israel was spent wiping sweat off of my back and going stir crazy with too much free time. My only commitments were a non-demanding emergency medicine course and an abbreviated ulpan class, nothing in comparison to my usually jam-packed life. I needed to burst out of my Anglo bubble and meet Israelis. I needed to get to know Be’er Sheva and to feel that I was a contributing member of my community. I needed to volunteer. I stumbled across an organization called Be’er Sova which provided a ‘meals-on-wheels’-eque program. This was it.

I entered a large room with big white walls. An industrial sized fan blasted from in front of the closed window. Even though it was 6 am, the August air was stifling. Two men sat in white plastic chairs, an older mildly obese woman was seated in a sturdier chair and another woman looked like a blur as she filled the trays. I took a big breath and did my best to greet everyone with an enthusiastic “boker tov!,” (Good morning!) but my eyes were weighed down and my voice was gruff with lack of sleep. The chef came up to me. His pot belly was creeping over his black and white striped pants and an old navy blue shirt clung to his sweaty chest.
“Shalom!,” I said.
“akjdfkajd;kfja,” he rattled off back to me.
I gave him a blank look.
“adjflakdjfkajdlfj,” he repeated, even faster.
I didn’t respond.
A short woman, who had previously been the blur, swirled around. She came up to my elbow but her energy filled the room. Her blonde curly hair dangled to just below her chin. And her gray roots were just starting to show. Her face showed a few tough years through her wrinkles, and she wore business casual underneath her white plastic apron. She looked like a woman who didn’t think she was that attractive but she still put her best foot forward.
“You are speaking English?” she asked.
“Yes.”
“What is your name?”
“Megan.”
“You are volunteering?”
“Yes.”
She turned to the chef and told him in Hebrew. He again rattled off another sentence, practically shouting at her. I was afraid that he was saying I couldn’t actually start that day. I had waited a month to find a place to volunteer. I thought I’d done everything right. The short woman turned back to me.
“You went to the office and filled out paperwork or something like this, no?”
“Yes.”
She turned back to chef. He nodded and walked off. She handed me a big serving spoon.
“Put here,” she said pointing to the medium sized hole in the container. I did as I was told but my aim was a little off and rice spilled over the side.
“You have somewhere to go tonight?,” she said, looking at me square in the eye.
I thought of my sublet. It belonged to a fourth year student and was situated in one of Be’er Sheva’s slums. He was quite eccentric. Biochemical pathways were drawn onto the walls in crayon and pictures of opportunistic skin infections in AIDS patients hung in the kitchen. He didn’t have a bed but he had enough ants to cart away my box of Honey Nut Cheerios. That night I’d planned to re-watch the entire six seasons of the L word and eat those Cheerios.
“Um, no,” I said.

At seven p.m. I stood on the street corner watching my neighbors rush to their own Shabbat dinners. I waited in my Shabbat outfit. I loathed dresses and skirts but I had been told that one must wear a skirt to Shabbat. The only skirt I brought with me was a long flowy brown hippie skirt so here I was in my skirt, trying to be culturally sensitive and aware. As I fidgeted with the necklace a friend gave me in Lesotho, I thought about how I’d only known Shuli for about two minutes before she invited me to her home. I had no idea where I was going and I suppose, technically, I could have been a gullible foreigner falling into some terrible trap. But I wasn’t worried. I was excited. This dinner was going to be great—full of family and good food. I trusted Shuli completely.
That’s how it started. One Shabbat dinner after another and a Rosh Hashannah blow-out feast later and I owed Shuli more food, family and culture than I could repay.

As the Sukkot holiday rolled around, I found myself on an Israeli safari to kibbutzim and moshavim all over the country with Shuli as the guide. She refused anything in return. No gas money. No drinks at gas stations. No quick bites. Not even my own entrance fees. Nothing. She stopped at sites that she must have seen countless times, like the former Syrian bunkers. She explained the abundance of groups of eucalyptus trees in the Golan telling the tail of an Israeli spy who managed to work his way to the top of the Syrian government and convinced the Syrian army to plant trees around their bunkers to ‘conceal’ them. Of course, he promptly told the IDF to bomb all the clusters of trees.

So there I am standing and watching Shuli’s eighty-five year old mother-in-law bending over to squeegee up the puddles of water and the coke. My heart sinks. This is how I am repaying her? This lavish dinner is one of a dozen that I have spent with Shuli over the last three months. I want to cry. And Shuli sees. She puts her arm around me, bringing me in closer. She rubs my shoulder and back while repeating over and over again “Hakol beseder, It’s okay.” And I know I have found my Jewish mother.


Author, Peggy Rambach, runs creative writing workshops in community education settings for the Healing Arts in health care, correctional facilities, ESL programs and immigrant support centers as well as offering assistance with lesson plans in professional development presentations for middle and high school teachers. She teaches memoir writing in medical schools as part of the curriculum in Narrative Medicine and Medical Humanities. Ms. Rambach is conveniently located for teachers, students and participants from throughout New England including the Vermont (VT) cities of Bennington, Burlington and Montpelier, the Maine (ME) cities of Portland, Gardener, Kennebunkport and York, the New Hampshire (NH) cities of Portsmouth, Concord, Manchester, Dover, Nashua and Rochester, the Massachusetts (MA) cities of Boston, Newburyport, Amherst, North Hampton, Salem, Beverly, Lawrence, Lowell, Haverhill, Gloucester, Plymouth, New Bedford, Manchester-by-the-Sea, Marblehead, Rockport, Hyannis, and Falmouth, the Rhode Island (RI) cities of Providence and Newport and the Connecticut (CT) cities of New Haven and Hartford.