Read an Excerpt
September 7, 1906
I know that one day I won’t be on this earth anymore. A world without the physical me—what will that look like? I’ll seep down into the soil, become a plant, a tree; I’ll be falling leaves, yellow, crunching under a child’s feet until I am dust. Nothing. Gone.
Every September, the shivers come over me, thoughts of my brother’s terrifying death, and the questions—why did his short life end? Why do people have to die?
I write here, trying to explain, each word a stepping stone. These words illuminate my past; they bring me forward, to the future. They help me remember.
Without my writing, I would suffer an emptiness worse than I feel now.
Today there are great holes in me. I feel like a secret observer, separate from everything that goes on around me. Peering from my window just above the storefronts of this creaky building on Ludlow Street where I’ve lived since the morning of my birth, I watch Mrs. Zanberger at the vegetable cart below. She argues with Miss Lara over the price of onions the way she does every Sunday. Behind her, Kat Radlikov drags her heavy skirt through the mud, her belly swollen, her husband hiding in the shadows of their rooms. In front of the grocer’s, Ruth Schmidt smiles under her patched parasol at Izzy Moscowitz, who works too hard to notice her. I see the Feldman sisters from upstairs chasing each other through puddles like boys, with finally a morning free from the factory. Under the butcher’s canopy, their mother talks with other mothers from the neighborhood, their faces dark with worry.
I know them, these girls and women, I’ve seen their families grow, they’ve seen mine get smaller. When I’m in their company, I listen to them trade recipes and sewing tips, I smile at their gossip about each other, yet I can’t find a word to add. My eyes get stuck on the sadness in their mouths, or their red, chapped hands, and suddenly I’m imagining their lives—what they dream about when no one is looking, or what they might be like with fewer children. The women talk around and over me; somehow I feel like I’ll always be looking at them through a distant window.
Even at school, I feel this. When classes started this week, I had in my mind the birth I’d attended with Marm the night before—Sophie Gersh came due around midnight and her mother pounded at our door, her fear thrusting us from our beds. Marm and I rushed after the frightened woman, running full gallop the two blocks to her daughter’s apartment, where the girl’s husband stood outside wringing his hands, and she lay keening in the bedroom like a poor abandoned child. I took my place at the head of the bed, where I held Sophie’s hand and wiped the sweat from her teary eyes and assured her the birth would be good, that all would come out as we planned. Below, Marm did her magic; Sophie’s water broke, she was ready. Working together, the three of us encouraged her baby to come forth into this world. His birth happened easily, a miracle, one of those rare times when Marm and I can clean up the infant and hand him to his mother and happily return to our own beds. We napped an hour before rising to face the day, which was my first day of school.
My schoolmates kissed—we don’t see each other through the summer months; the girls had matured, their faces and bodies grown longer or fatter. I smiled at Josephine, who had become impossibly taller and thinner and prettier, and Fanny, whose round face had finally found its cheekbones. I brushed their cheeks with my lips. I searched their eyes for the start to a conversation; I wanted to tell them about the birth, or Benny, but Josephine started talking about her new job at the perfume counter at Macy’s. She described the glamorous ladies who bought the most expensive ounces, the delicate fabrics they wore, their jewels and dogs. She didn’t stop until Mrs. Browning came in with stout Miss Ruben, our teacher for the year. My heart dropped when I saw it was her. Miss Ruben’s eyes swept the room imperiously and settled on me.
She said, “Girls, I see that some of you are still lacking in the most basic charms. We must correct that situation now. This is your last year before you are released into the world. There is no time left to waste!”
I turned my eyes away from hers and concentrated on the smoke I could see puffing from the stack of the building next door. My stomach soured at the thought of spending my last year with her. Miss Ruben hasn’t liked me since third grade.
At afternoon lunch, I sat in the common room nibbling on my potato knish, listening to Jo and Fanny, feeling as if my insides were made of India rubber and all their words bounced around without touching me. I again attempted to tell them about the beautiful boy whose birth I had witnessed that very morning, but Josephine’s exuberant chatter drowned out my words before I could form them.
“Oh, Fanny,” she said, “goodness, I forgot to tell you I thought you looked simply darling at the cocoon tea! Where did you buy that sweet dress?”
“Feinstein’s had a special sale,” Fanny explained. “I saw Dora there, and she convinced me to buy it. Did you hear her father caught her and Mr. Goldwaite holding hands in the back of his carriage? That man is too old for her!”
“He should pair with a dumpling like Miss Ruben, not a girl Dora’s age!” Josephine said. “Have you noticed the way our teacher looks this year? That lip coloring is simply awful on her, don’t you think? And doesn’t she know gray jackets with heavy braids are out of fashion?”
“The way she looks at us,” Fanny said, “you’d think she was the Queen of England!”
The girls laughed, and I shook my head. I longed to be somewhere else, with someone else. I felt inside me that sore place of missing Anushka, and that silly flash of anger—why has she left me alone? Every morning we’d walk to school together, talking about everything under the sun. She’d ask me what I dreamt and thought about. No one does that now. I wish she hadn’t moved away last spring. In her letters from the farm, she writes about someone named Ida. I get a pang of fear when she writes of this girl. I hope Ida has not replaced me. Anushka said speaking to Ida was profound, like walking into a lake and suddenly discovering a drop-off into deeper water.
Oh, I simply ache to have a profound talk with another girl! I’d tell her about Papa and Benny, how our life used to be.
I’ve been sneaking into the temple to read notices on the B’nai community board, those that are not in Hebrew. For our last year of school, we are allowed to work afternoons, but I can’t imagine myself arranging flowers like Sara does at McLean’s Fancy Florist, or using my feminine charms like Josephine to draw in customers at Macy’s perfumery. Mrs. Browning says these sorts of jobs bring us closer to the class of people we strive to be someday, but I want serious employ. Not just for the money, though Marm and I do need it, but for the challenge to my mind. I want to be able to go somewhere and do something important and return home in the evening with soft bills in hand. Is it foolish to want a different type of job than Mrs. Browning trains us for, something more, something bigger than myself?
Truthfully, I hunger for a job that’s meaningful.
© 2011 Julie Chibbaro