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 cant
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 didnt 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
uncles visit. She made another caviar bread and butter for
me, and I told her the scary news. She said, Well, thats
really shocking. I certainly see what you mean. But the caviar
bread and butter is still here, in any case so it cant
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 Svetlanas 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
doesnt 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 wont have to leave home if we dont
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 Im sure the cemetery wasnt
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
wasnt 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. Its a shame I
cant 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.
by Niki Kotsenko
The last time I went to visit my grandmother
in the hospital, I took along a digital camera. Its not
that Im 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.
Grandmas 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 hadnt
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. Shed nod slightly, less with acknowledgment
than skepticism. If I say so... then shed ask: why?
And Id tell her: To see how you were doing. Because
I love you. This never sounded convincing to me. Usually
she didnt 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.
Lets 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
shed 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 didnt 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 wasnt 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 hadnt 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
Grandma, its Israel. They dont hang people here. Dont
She gave me another one of her noncommittal nods. Maybe
it was for the best. She said.
I didnt know how to respond to that, didnt feel capable
of reassuring her. She wasnt 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 grandmothers 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
Portrait of a Father
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. Thats how it is in Nebraska.
I licked my lips nervously and tasted
the salt of my sweat.
Were 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 didnt,
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 hed done so a few seconds later.
My fathers 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.
Roundtrees 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 didnt 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 yardone perfect for digging holes in which
to bury secretslike the fact I was six years old and couldnt
ride a bike.
Get up, I heard my father
say. Do it right! I imagined the grass in Mrs. Roundtrees
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 lawna savior.
I dont remember what she said to my father but Im
sure they discussed it laterone of the conversations that
took place after the kids are asleep, while my sisters
listened through the wall.
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. Shulis 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. Shulis 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 someones
Before I headed off to study global
health medicine in Beer Sheva, I daydreamed about how cool
itd be to have a Jewish momthe 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 Beer Sheva
and to feel that I was a contributing member of my community.
I needed to volunteer. I stumbled across an organization called
Beer 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 didnt 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 didnt
think she was that attractive but she still put her best foot
You are speaking English? she asked.
What is your name?
You are volunteering?
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 couldnt actually start that day. I
had waited a month to find a place to volunteer. I thought Id
done everything right. The short woman turned back to me.
You went to the office and filled out paperwork or something
like this, no?
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 Beer Shevas 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 didnt have a bed but he had enough
ants to cart away my box of Honey Nut Cheerios. That night Id
planned to re-watch the entire six seasons of the L word and eat
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 Id 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 wasnt worried. I
was excited. This dinner was going to be greatfull of family
and good food. I trusted Shuli completely.
Thats 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
So there I am standing and watching
Shulis 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, Its 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.