June 13, 2012
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Sometimes, when her father was traveling and her mother and Frieda were napping on Frieda’s narrow bed and all the boys were busy with the horses or mill work, Irene would set down her towel and steal silently to her father’s bureau to peer into the narrow mirror that hung there above the basin and pitcher. In its walnut frame, the mirror had a faintly brassy cast and showed black lines in the reflective surface. It was her father’s shaving glass and it was the only mirror in the house.
The face that looked back at her was wide and plain, the thin hair pulled back from her brow, fuzzy wisps curling where they escaped. She had none of her mother’s concentrated beauty — not her coffee-dark eyes or her thick, chestnut hair — and Irene knew that when her father called her “my lovely,” he was wanting of her some favor, some task, teasing her out from the crowded field of her brothers.
She had many things to occupy her hands and mind and time, but, at 16, she found herself wondering whether anyone might ever find her truly lovely. Standing before the mirror, one finger tracing the narrow contours of her lips, the darkened circles beneath her eyes, she thought perhaps not.
September 28, 2011
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Later, when she tried to recall the journey, she remembered nothing of the miles covered that first day. She could still see the neighbors waving, her sight blurred by tears, and the baby bundled in her lap. But the long hours of riding, the meals unwrapped from the basket and eaten at the roadside, the children running and napping and crying — all that was lost.
How hard it had been that first night, asking shelter from strangers. The cart had drawn up in front of the small, rough-hewn stone house sheltered below the branches of an ancient cedar. The rabbi’s house. Berti had told her the name, described the house and the tree.
How often she had opened her own door to the timid knock of a passing traveler, made welcome the men and the families who knew there would be warm food, a clean bed. But now, to stand at this solid wood door with its iron hinges, the baby in her arms, the two children clinging to her skirt, she felt she had suddenly inhabited someone else’s life, become someone unknown, a stranger to herself…
April 7, 2011
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…There was nothing but time then, the horse’s steps measuring breath, the man’s silence broken by his occasional throat clearing or a tongue click to the horse.
Her hands lie idle; the miles stretch endlessly ahead. It is a quiet moment, rare enough at home, but she feels little appreciation for its peaceful embrace.
In his fine script, Berti’s letters had spoken of the people she knew, the brother and cousins who had left before. He spoke of his work, in a kosher butcher shop. But he gave her no clues to this new place, America. So, carrying the remnants of her history, she went toward the little she knew — her family, her Berti — into the maelstrom of the unknown.
She looked down at the warm baby and pulled him deeper into her lap. Only his face was visible, the rest of his sturdy body swathed in quilts and blankets — his eyelashes fringed against his cheeks, his round chin already showing Berti’s handsome cleft.
Ahead, the track led into a copse of trees that squeezed the faded light out of the morning. But inside the gloomy tunnel she looked up to see the specks of silver light that seemed to dance among the trees, relieving the darkness…
January 2, 2011
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…The gray-green field shorn of its harvest, the scrubby oaks, the low shoulder of rock pressing out of the hillside. Chickens and goats scrabble among shriveled leftovers of vegetable gardens, the last of the squash plucked and put up for the season.
The sun slants its winter light toward them, offering no solace or warmth. The boy and girl, so filled with anticipation just moments ago, sleep in curled bundles beneath woolen quilts, the baby warming her lap in his leaden slumber.
The man says nothing to her, but chucks or clicks now and then to urge the horse, which presses forward, slow and deliberate, along the well-worn track. His wife, stirring porridge at the warm stove as he left, would dig the last of the potatoes today, kneeling on her folded square of cloth.
Behind Irene, stuffed with the clothes they would need for the journey, carpet bags form a nest around the sleeping children. A single trunk is lashed to the cart. She tugs the blanket tighter around her shoulders and touches the place over her breast where Berti’s letter lies carefully folded…
December 13, 2010
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She was the last to leave, except for her oldest brother, who would never leave, and would eventually disappear. Why had she stayed so long? She was 28, mother of three, at the prime of her life.
Like a mother, she had stayed to watch over her sister and brothers. But like children, they had left home, and her, year after year, until there was only Arpad, who had himself moved to the city. Then it was only her and Berti and the children. And once Berti had determined to leave, her future was certain. Around the children, she began sifting her past, the modest traces of memory.
Each week, she brushed the fallen leaves from her parents’ graves, explaining to them again and again why she would have to go. But they were fierce in their hold upon her, insisting that if she did not stay she would be shirking her filial duty, dishonoring a commandment, abandoning the most helpless members of her family. In her sorrow, she could not persuade them to see hope or possibility in her journey, and even she knew that her promises to return were hollow. Tears chilling her cheeks, she squeezed the warm round rock in her hand and set it atop the headstone…
November 24, 2010
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What she did was only what millions have done: gather scant provisions, bundle the children in layers of warmth, and set out across the frost-crisp winter landscape toward the unknown. Did she lock the door behind her? Did other villagers appear alongside the cart, the white steam of their breath concealing tears? Did they bring baskets stuffed with pastries and sausages and set them at her side so the aroma of home would linger through those first hard miles? Did they pull from their pockets letters and photographs scrawled with memories and assurances, pressing them into her hands, pleading that she carry them, talismans of hope? Did they give her a coin to slip into her shoe or a scarf with a bit of gold stitched into the hem? Did they urge upon her one more blanket—for the little ones!—one more woolen coat? When the old horse had taken the first difficult steps, squaring the weight of the cart behind her, did they stand together, shoulders touching, watching her draw away down the familiar track? Did they wave again and again at the children, smiling and calling, until the cart had rounded the curve in the road and disappeared? . . .