Green Hills Literary Lantern

 

 

 

Yahrzeit 

 

 

London, October 27, 1995

 

She wondered aloud if he was Jewish. She inquired casually, while spreading clotted cream on a scone. Perhaps too casually.

 

“Why do you ask?” A touch of Liverpool in her accent reminded him of Ringo Starr in Yellow Submarine: “Are you bluish? You don’t look bluish.”

 

“Your curly hair, dark lashes—I’m not exactly sure.” She turned toward the pianist at the rear of the Dorchester lobby, who’d started playing “The Girl From Ipanema.” The music mixed with the buzz and tinkling of high tea. “But why do you care that I asked?”

 

She sat cross-legged on an overstuffed chair, and he, on a love seat with gold braiding, leaned toward her. “Because I might like you,” he said.

 

“And so?”

 

“Some people don’t like Jews.” Stefan surprised himself with the comment, so frank with a woman he barely knew. And why had he, such an un-Jewish Jew (as he thought himself), bothered to raise the topic? “I’m worried,” he continued, “that you asked the question to rule me out.” He selected a tea sandwich from the tray tower on the table. Now he tried for casual.

 

“Can’t we agree that’s a tad paranoid? I mean in this day and age.”

 

He turned to her. Nia was underdressed for the place, in an untucked men’s shirt and black jeans, but then again, he’d only just met her on a bench in Hyde Park. No matter. They knew Stefan at the hotel as an American who visited frequently, often with a celebrity in tow, and who took one of the big suites. A nod from the maître d’ and they’d been seated.

 

“Once upon a time,” he said, “I had Jewish grandmothers, Celia and Fanny, who spoke to each other in Yiddish.” How their language had embarrassed him in public, with its rising lilt and gutturals like throat-clearing. Grandma Celia embarrassed him in other ways too: ankles swelling out of black orthopedic shoes; a loud, high-pitched voice; eyeglasses riding on a nose he’d inherited, hated, and ultimately had straightened and narrowed.

 

“Yiddish? Well, there’s a word we haven’t heard in a while.” She took a sip of pink champagne. “Hasn’t it gone nearly extinct like, uh, Navajo or the languages of those Amazon tribes?”

 

“Well, I, I…” Feeling himself well up, he averted his eyes to the pianist. “You must have noticed,” he said, “that this guy’s making Muzak out of jazz.”

 

“Ah, you’re a musician. I knew it.”

 

Her fingers lightly brushed his hand, but, still composing himself, he kept his focus on the pianist. “Once I was. Now I’m in the music business.” He came often to London, he explained, to sign U.K. venues for U.S. artists he represented. This week he was cutting a deal with London’s Apollo.

 

She shifted to sit next to him. “Hey, mate,” she whispered, close and warm, “I didn’t mean to upset you.”

 

For the first time, he saw her closely. Her cropped, black hair had a vanilla scent. Her brilliant amber eyes seemed at odds with a perfectly deadpan face, and there was something comical in the contrast. “Must’ve been the cucumber sandwich,” he said, knowing the tiredness of the joke and confused that he’d gone sad.

 

 

Yorktown Heights, New York, October 27, 1975

 

The grandmothers sat where Stefan had dropped them off, in cushioned Adirondack chairs on a porch. They looked onto a lake and a ridge beyond, enjoying a cool, pine-scented breeze. The keening of loons echoed off cliffs at the far edge of the water.

 

The sights and sounds, the fall crimsons and golds, soothed them, and they remained peaceably quiet for a while, pointing out a bird or butterfly, but not knowing the names: red-tailed hawk, loon, monarch. In all their lives they’d rarely left the city, though lately the place, surging with street crime, gave good cause for flight. Fanny, having been a seamstress in a West Side garment factory, had no money for excursions and, since her husband, Joe, had passed, could barely afford her postage stamp of an apartment on the poorer end of the Grand Concourse. Celia lived on what was once the ritzier stretch of the Bronx’s widest boulevard. Her husband, Philip, away that weekend with his brother in Vegas, had made good money in his day, but he had no time or desire for his wife’s company. She knew better than to ask.

 

Celia, age seventy-six, rested a heavy leg on a milk box that Fanny found for her at the side of the cabin. Fanny, white-haired and trim in a belted summer dress, undid an emerald scarf she’d worn on the ride up. She worried about Celia’s health. The woman was obese, had thick glasses because of glaucoma, and struggled with ulcerated calves. She always wore, as Fanny put it, a shmate, a washed-out housedress, regardless of the season. As Fanny viewed it, Celia had given up on herself.

 

“A mechaye,” Celia said. Yiddish for a great pleasure and relief. She swept a hand toward the panorama as she said the word, defaulting to the only language she’d spoken or read until age ten, a language she’d carried from the Tsar’s Pale of Settlement to New York City. “He’s so considerate, Steffie, for taking us here.”

 

Her grandson, knowing Celia had recently gone through trying times and wanting to help her heal, had driven them to his bandmate’s family retreat in a wood near Yorktown Heights—a well-appointed Craftsman bungalow. He dropped them off with meals he’d carefully selected and purchased at a kosher deli. He’d be back in two days. He left them a phone number, assuring them he was only an hour away at a friend’s in Rhinebeck.

 

“Such a gentle boy too,” Fanny said.

 

“Not like his father,” Celia added. Stefan was Herbert’s twenty-year-old son; Herbert, Celia’s only child, had married Fanny’s youngest, Rebecca. 

 

“You don’t mean that. Herb’s good to my girl.” Fanny raised cat’s-eye sunglasses to her forehead and studied Celia for her mood. “I think that’s just—that’s your sadness talking.” A few months earlier, Celia had tried suicide with pills and iodine. Stefan put his rock band on pause and, for days, subwayed from the Lower East Side to hold her hand. She was in a coma and breathed through a  trake tube that rose like a chimney from her throat. He was disgusted that neither his grandfather nor father ever showed up at the hospital. Upon her discharge, both insisted Stefan keep Celia’s attempt secret from the broader family.

 

“It’s a shonde,” Philip said, “that she would do this to us.” Meaning that her attempt brought them shame. All that Fanny and the rest of the family knew was that Celia had been hospitalized for depression.

 

“Trust me, Herb has Philip’s temper. It’s in their blood.”

 

“Celia. Let’s enjoy the—”

 

“You remember, Fanny, that pinochle game.”

 

“Honey—”

 

“When he threw Rosie out of the apartment?”

 

“Please.” This was not the Celia she knew, the woman who, when Philip called her a stupid Polack, an ugly Polack, could tune him out and retreat with Fanny to the kitchen to purée chicken livers in an old meat grinder, or sauté latkes, or peel sweet potatoes for tzimmes with prunes. Or better yet, when Philip stormed out, she’d take a seat at her upright and play and sing old Jewish songs and show tunes for Fanny. Stefan had pointed out that there was a recently tuned spinet in the bungalow.

 

“Fanny,” he’d whispered, “get her to play.” 

 

“Because,” Celia went on, “Rosie used a dirty word that he thought was meant for him. And when I would not tell my friend to leave, you saw, Fanny. How he grabbed me right in front of you and my friends. By the back of my neck, and dragged me out of my chair like a dead cat.”

 

Fanny stood, took a pack of Pall Malls from her purse, walked to the porch railing, and lit a cigarette. Over the years, she’d seen bruises on Celia’s face and wrists. She understood. And what if it was true that Philip’s violence ran in Herb’s veins? Her daughter never spoke of such a thing. But would she dare? And what had Stefan seen, heard, experienced? Fanny’s head often shook with a hint of Parkinson’s; now the tremor felt more pronounced. A loon dove into the lake. “Did you see that bird, Celia?”

 

Celia, staring down at her lap, didn’t answer; she seemed empty, locked into herself. This might, Fanny thought, be the effect of medication. Best not to ask.

 

“Get up. Look. It went in, maybe a hundred miles an hour,” Fanny said.

 

Celia rose with difficulty, lifting her weight more with her arms than her legs. She stood next to Fanny at the porch railing. “I’m sorry.”

 

Fanny watched for the bird to surface. “What’s to be sorry about? We’re family.”

 

Machatunim,” Celia said. The word, with no English counterpart, for parents of a married couple.

 

“That’s the ticket.”

 

“You know you’re beautiful,” Celia said, “with that sun setting behind you.” Celia gently touched Fanny’s hair, careful not to muss it. “Like a movie star, you are.”

 

“Oh, stop.” Fanny dragged deeply on her cigarette, exhaled slowly, and repeated, gradually slowing her tremor. “Speaking of movies,” she said, “how many times did we take Steffie to the Loew’s Paradise?”

 

“With him walking between us, talking a mile a minute. Must have been a hundred times.”

 

“The way he loved those lights,” Fanny said, “that twinkled in the ceiling.”

 

“He called them ‘day stars,’ remember?”

 

“That place was a palace, right there on the Grand Concourse.”

 

And the women, arm in arm, went in for the night.

 

 

Letcombe Regis, England, October 28, 1995

 

At tea Nia had spoken of her job as Associate Producer of Children’s Programming at the BBC. Sesame Street, she said, underestimated kids’ learning capacity, and she’d gone on about expanding young horizons, “from Charlie Parker to Maria Callas.”

 

“From Laurel to Hardy,” he’d responded with a smirk.

 

“From Warhol to asshole,” she’d fired back, and off they went, sipping champagne, generating stupid pairs, their laughter drawing a glare from the next table.

 

She’d left the Dorchester in a rush for a staff meeting, and she said she’d be sleeping at her parents’ in the village of Letcombe Regis to help with her father, recently out of leg surgery. She gave him her London home number. Maybe, she added, they’d get together in a day or two. 

 

As the evening wore on with her, Stefan wondered if she’d ever call back. Remembering her close whisper, her scent, he thought much more should have happened that afternoon, that night. Maybe, she’d said. Well, why in fuck’s name had he raised Jews and grandmothers and Yiddish? And where did that welling up come from? He was never quick to tears, and he rarely identified himself as Jewish. His surname, Sherry, never gave him away. He’d once been married to an Italian Catholic and had long kept a distance from his observant family. And Yiddish? It always seemed unworthy, a generator of goofy words for comedians—putz, schmuck, schlimazel. It was unequal to languages of the Old World and the lost languages of noble tribes. Even Israel chose Hebrew over Yiddish, didn’t it? He had relatives there, in Tel Aviv. They didn’t want the language of the ghetto, of the diaspora, of his grandparents’ long-extinguished shtetls. 

 

Next morning, in bed and half-asleep, he stretched for the ringing phone. 

 

“Have you ever walked the Downs in Oxfordshire?”

 

Nia! “What’s with you Brits and all this walking?” He pulled the covers up as he spoke and wished she were next to him. 

 

“On a brilliant fall day? How could one not take a walk?”

 

He pictured her bright eyes as she spoke. Her work connected her to the world of children, and that’s what he felt about her, the energy and optimism that draws kids close. He wanted to tell her that. And he wanted to kiss her. 

 

* * *

 

He had the hotel car, a silver Maybach, drive him to the countryside. It pulled up at her parents’ place, an ancient, whitewashed house with a thatched roof. When he stepped out, the morning air was chill and damp.

 

“Way too posh,” she said, touching the vehicle, “for our neck of the woods.” And they hugged easily, as if they’d known each other a while. “I have a surprise for you,” she said. “For later.”

 

Inside, before a roaring fireplace, she introduced her parents. Her father, James, a retired lord justice, a slight man with mussy gray hair, apologized for wearing sweatpants, one leg stretched onto an extension from his wheelchair. At the hotel tea, Nia had joked about him always defaulting to a “judicial grimace,” like a judge viewing a witness askance, but Stefan saw warmth and the source of Nia’s eyes. And he heard, in the man’s voice, a purer version of Nia’s Scouse accent.

 

Her mother, Tabitha, a professor of comparative literature at Oxford, gave Nia her height and broad shoulders. She offered tea and breakfast, but Nia wanted to get on with their hike. First, though, her mother, with great excitement, had to show them a fossil she’d found when they drained a watercress pond behind the house. An “opalized ammonite,” she called the iridescent, nautilus-shaped shell. Stefan registered that Nia grew up in a place of high intelligence. Books everywhere. No television in sight. Classical music playing. 

 

“Mahler’s Ninth,” Stefan said.

 

“This man’s a keeper,” her father said, looking up from his London Review of Books.

 

They climbed over a stile onto a field of grass and thistle scattered with sheep, and they walked across it and up an incline at Nia’s fast clip for nearly an hour. He admired her stamina and grace.

 

At the crest of the Downs, they sat on a log and she held up a joint and a green plastic lighter. “Do we, Stefan?”

 

“We definitely do, Nia.”

 

Between tokes, she pointed out distant sights: the ancient steeples, the stream that wound below, an archeological site, and autumn colors specific to each type of tree. They sat close and he wanted to find a path to kissing her, but found himself awkward and shy.

 

“What’s my surprise?” he asked.

 

She pulled a red, clothbound book from her backpack and handed it to him. “After our tea, I rang my mother up at the college and told her about you and Yiddish and so on. A colleague loaned her this.”

 

He turned through the yellowed pages. Poems in Yiddish on the left, translations on the right. Again, a confusing sadness rose up in him, and he thought of his Grandma Celia and that time he came to pick her up at a bungalow near Rhinebeck. He found himself at a loss for words.

 

“I thought you might,” he heard Nia saying, “that we might, read a couple of these out loud, especially that beautiful one about the circus girl.” She put her hand on his thigh. “But I see, well, perhaps this all seems a bit patronizing or offensive in some such way, and Stefan, that’s the last thing on Earth I—”

 

He took her hand and kissed it, and she kissed his hand, commenting that he had the fingers of a guitarist. He felt relieved that they’d moved past the book, that somehow it wasn’t time for that. “Come on,” he said. “Let’s walk some more.”

 

They headed down the slope toward the stream.

 

 

 

YORKTOWN HEIGHTS, OCTOBER 28, 1975

 

That night, after dinner, Fanny sat on a kitchen chair near Celia at the piano. They sang “Where Did Robinson Crusoe Go With Friday on Saturday Night?”, a silly ragtime piece. Celia moved on to all the tricks she’d learned playing for the silent movies when she was young. Music to announce the villains and women in distress. A pounding bass for the oncoming locomotive. Rising arpeggios for a storm and jagged chords for bumbling cops. Whatever mood Fanny asked for, Celia could play.

 

Stefan was right. Celia was a different person at the piano. She held her head proud and high, as if to release her singing voice. Her hands and thick arms swept the full range of the piano. She hit low notes with her pinky and then chords, a Harlem-stride style she’d learned as a teenager.

 

They slept well, and next morning Fanny was glad to hear the shower running. No doubt Celia had gotten up early, full of energy. The spirit of the evening had carried over.

 

But the shower kept running and running, and finally Fanny saw water on the floor outside the bathroom door. She called for Celia, but there was no answer.

 

She burst in. Celia lay on her back in an overflowing tub, her head above water but the curtain and curtain rod on the floor. “Guttenu, my God, ” Fanny shouted, turning off the flow, reaching between Celia’s feet to find the drain and let the water out, rolling up a towel to place like a pillow behind Celia’s head. Celia said the tub filled up while she was showering, and she lost her footing and fell, but it wasn’t so bad, because the water broke her fall. While Celia rambled on, Fanny felt a large knot on the back of Celia’s head. No blood, though. She had her raise her arms and lift each leg. But Celia couldn’t get herself out of the tub and seemed increasingly agitated about being stuck there. Fanny couldn’t pull her up by the hands and felt pain in her back when she tried. Having drained all the water out, she dried Celia with a towel and brought her a pillow and blankets. Though reluctant to leave Celia alone, she went to the kitchen phone to call Stefan.

 

Nothing. The phone was dead. Fanny hurried out the front door to the dirt road beyond the porch. Nothing. No one. No houses. Just the cry of loons and the swirl of fallen leaves on the breeze.

 

She went back in. Celia lay quietly, eyes open, alert. Fanny lied to Celia and told her Stefan was on his way. It would be about an hour. She tucked the blanket around Celia and fluffed the pillow. She brought food from the kitchen, lox and cream cheese on a bagel for both. She held the sandwich up for Celia, and she managed a few bites. Celia said she was a little cold, and Fanny brought hot tea with lemon. As the morning passed, Fanny brushed Celia’s hair, and Celia asked if Fanny would tie her beautiful green scarf on her. Fanny did. The food seemed to wake Celia, and the women talked about how funny the situation was. It would be, Celia said, a story to tell when they got back. Fanny asked about the scar on Celia’s throat. Celia said it was from long ago, when she was a girl. “Funny,” Fanny said. “All these years, I never noticed.”

 

Celia fell asleep. A healing sleep, Fanny thought. One that would make the time pass quickly until Stefan arrived as originally scheduled, at noon, to pick them up. Fanny packed their bags while Celia slept, wearing the green scarf. Then she waited on the porch for her grandson, again trying to slow her tremor with cigarettes.

 

Days later, at a funeral home in the Bronx, Fanny would console Stefan. Even if he had arrived much earlier, even if the phone had worked, Celia would have passed away. The doctors said as much about the slow bleed inside her skull. No, it wasn’t his fault. He must believe that.

 

 

LETCOMBE REGIS, OCTOBER 28, 1995

 

At the foot of the hill, the wind came up, blowing their hair about. They walked on a gravel road and stopped for a moment by the stream’s shallows to watch two girls cross on stepping-stones.

 

“Let’s get back to the poems,” he said. Standing next to her, he picked the book out of her backpack and read, “‘Ich bin a tsirk meydl.’”

 

She, looking over his shoulder, read, “‘I am a circus girl.’”

 

“‘Aun ich tantsn tsvishn dagerz,’” he read.

 

“‘And I dance between daggers,’” she read.

 

“Such a beautiful language,” she said.

 

“It was,” he said.

 

“You loved your grandmothers.”
 
“They were like sisters.” Looking out at the view, he said, “Celia died on a day a lot like this one, when the leaves were changing.  For years after that, on the death anniversary, Fanny would light a yahrzeit candle in memory of Celia. I remember Fanny in that closet of a kitchen, holding a handkerchief on her head in place of a shawl, swaying, praying, lighting it.” Now the fall colors blurred for him. He put the book on the ground, clasped his hands before him, and looked down. He should have checked that damned phone. He should have stayed with them. He should—
 

“Hey,” she whispered, tilting to him, finding his eyes.

 

She took her lighter out and picked up a twig with dead leaves. She handed it to him and lit it. “Here’s your candle,” she said and placed her hand lightly on his hair. “I’m your shawl.” 

 

He spoke the first few words of the Kaddish—Yitgadal v’yitkadash sh’mei raba—but stopped when the breeze killed the flame. 

 

She took his head between her fingers. “Your ears are cold.”

 

“Very,” he said, and lost himself in her kiss. 
 

 

 

 

Yahrzeit” was recently a finalist in the Glimmer Train 2018 Fiction Open.

 

N. Marc Mullin’s fiction has appeared or is forthcoming in Hawaii Pacific Review,
Fifth Wednesday, Limestone Journal, Midway Journal, Sanskrit Literary-Arts Magazine, Sliver Of Stone, Storyscape Journal, Superstition Review, Umbrella Factory, Willow Review
, and Zone 3. “Milkweed” was a finalist in Middlesex University London’s international fiction contest. “Miracle of the Cow” won an annual fiction award from Willow Review.
 

A native of the Bronx, he drove a taxi and spent years as a sheet metal worker before becoming an attorney specializing in civil rights and employment law. He currently has his own firm, Smith Mullin, P.C., and has successfully argued cases in front of the United States Supreme Court and the New Jersey Supreme Court.