Divorce MemoriesThis new life lasted one day, now taking me home after finding me behind the plush sofa. Going away from the streudel and wedding songs. “We always imagine the laughing, the joy in another’s garden,” my mother always said.
He is taking me home walking. “You never say a word to me,” my father said. “Laura, what do you have against me? I have always tried to give you a decent home, and I am nothing to you.”
Chewing hard on his cigar from one side to another. “Maybe when you grow up you will remember how you talked against me in court -- a lot. I have nothing against you. Not your fault.”
“Do re mi.” I sang to myself along with a chirping bird in the trees. “Laura, Laura, little girl,”came the short chirps like the lawyer in court as he took my hand leading me to the witness stand.
“Comfortable in that chair?”
I learned early how to keep my wits about me. I had to tolerate fighting from all directions,from women on the street fighting with peddlers, to my father yelling, “You’re always throwing
divorce in my face!”
And smart when I told the court my name and “I’m six and a half.”
“No, my father doesn’t live with us anymore. I see him when he takes me to the doctor. Once he carried me. I was so heavy he fell in the dirt with me and I got hurt. My mother said he was too stingy to take the streetcar when she went to sleep,” which brought out heavy sighs from the women, the men laughing heartily, the judge hammering for order in the court.
“In the middle of the night,” I talked on, “he came in and pulled the pillow out from under her head -- fast. She screamed she got so scared, she hollered ‘So late you went to a cigar meeting? Why are there so many women in the cigar factory? How many women did you see? I want to be rid of him. I suffer. He puts on his tallis and he’s happy. I want a new life.’”
“He threw the pillow like a blizzard all over the house. Scared too and afraid. I was lost, dizzy in a blizzard of feathers, in my mouth and eyes and I couldn't spit it out.”
The birds still chirping as we walk. “Where are we? Papa? Are we lost? Almost there?” I hadto ask. Walking and walking all over blocks and blocks? Endless like that day in court. Men standing there and fighting, pointing to my father, “Sit down,” and my mother in a stupor.
“Adultery! Free her of this man!”
“Men too have their rights!”
He jumps up. “She drives me out of this world! She can’t get a divorce if I don’t want to give it to her. It’s the law!”
They’re fighting and I’m sitting there untouched by all this until one of those giants came and put me in a big, dark room. I was in the way.
It was up to the judge and the chief witness – me, at six and a half when they put me on the witness stand in that courtroom to help my mother get her divorce. Once and for all give her the divorce and the Jewish divorce, too, so that the divorce is finally tied up with a knot.
But with my testimony she got the divorce anyway, she and the three of us, the baby was two. She was now free to find a man without a mother, no tobacco leaves, and a few dollars in the bank.
All my father had to do was to bring her a gift of five dollars a week for the rest of his life. That was a promise without a vow, as he put it, tearfully in prayer as he got his things together, telling me to be good before leaving the house, and to always remember to let G-d in here, pointing to his heart.
“It would be a mitzvah,” my father said, “if your mother would brush your hair and braid it,” touching my face with his brown, tobacco fingers, as he got my long, tangled, dirty brown hair away from my eyes around my shoulders, smiling, patting my cheek -- the smells of horses and the rough
sounds of wheels, soon in sight all dirty brown, telling us we would soon be home.
I cringed when he patted my cheek again, turned away from the many wounds on his fingers, hardened and scarred from slicing tobacco day after day -- to the few blossoms in a yard that managed to grow, trying to perfume the air.
“A mitzvah,” he said, “is like putting a candle in a dark room. A little light can light up the world.” The same words when he watched my mother closely, “It’s Shabbos. Time to light the
candles. Chaya. It’s already dark.” My grandfather Hersch too, “The stars are already out, light the candles. Why are you now so busy? Machle. From the morning no time all day? It’s Shabbos.” It was a mitzvah to do most anything for anyone, except for a divorced woman, and that was my mother
and her children, even if she was his daughter or not.
He took another cigar out of his pocket, chewed it a bit and lit it, blowing smoke. “I treated her like a queen. I hope you’re treated like a queen when you grow up, Laura, and sing Sabbath Queen.”
Songs? I invented songs in that big, empty, dark room where they took me. I was too noisy and in the way, to those old, dark bearded men in dark wood frames hanging on darker woodpaneled walls. I ran around those old brown chairs. Lots of room around that long dark table for me to drag chair to chair, from my mother to my father to court singing songs – “come and get me!”, loud just like a peddler’s song, the room dark as night. Where was that little light then to light up the
world? No one to tell it to now, almost two years later and still from my mother, to him, to Dinah’s kisses that tasted of hate, to his cigar smoke. All I could do in that room was to pull on a tooth. I wanted something to hurt me so I could cry.
Easier tears now just thinking of that darkness and me in the middle of those court arguments, waiting for a little light from an opening door. I was like that one measly flower that had managed to grow in that dilapidated yard we were now passing.
“You don’t have to cry, Laura,” about to pat me on the cheek again. “You’re home.” Putting out the smoking cigar by turning it at a fence, straightening his sweater and smoothing his hair, getting himself ready for the impatience of my mother. She was sitting there as if waiting for us to arrive. I already knew. She would grab me and push him away. “Look at her hair, not combed since she left,” and more wrangling. Instead she said, “Hello.” A great greeting.
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“And a beautiful day to you too. Ich dank dir. You’re not at the piano. I always think of your accomplishments. When I’m alone sometimes I sing ‘Over The Waves.’ I didn’t forget you, Chaya.”
I almost thought, “You can have her!” The way he looked at me.
“Chaya, listen. I don’t want you to start in and argue. I’m older. You’re older. We learned a lot.Maybe we can get together again.”
“For another divorce?” she said. “I couldn’t get a Jewish divorce from you. Chased around toall the Rabbis and we couldn’t find you. Where you could hurt me, you hurt me. But as soon as you needed it and got married, then I could have the Jewish divorce for your sake.”
“Look,” he said laughingly, “she got you your divorce, now she'll get me mine.” Giving me a pat on the cheek. Fumbling for the cigar in his pocket at the word ‘divorce.’ She was about to wave to the peddler to stop, “potatoes?” then to me, “Where’s your satchel with the clothes?”
“I’ll bring it,” he quickly said.
“Like you bring the five dollars. I can’t even buy a potato.”
“There’s not work in the factory now, you know that. I give you almost half when I get my pay. What more can I do?”
“I have to take the street car -- cost me seven cents.”
“I’m careful with my money too. Together we can work it out.”
“You’re crazy like your brother who thinks everyone is chasing him.”
“Look, Chaya, a little crazy is not catching. It’s not T.B.”
“I’m not squandering money either,” she said.
“Do I ever complain? Do I tell you what to spend? Chaya? Even in my dreams I don’t forget you. I want to come back. I want us to start over.”
Getting a blank stare from her, “Tracht gut,” he said thoughtfully. “If you think good. Vil zein gut. Hashem will make it happen.”
She took me around, guarding me away from him. Then as if changing her mind, stopped for a moment. Holding me tighter I turned with her and started to walk up the steps.
“You won’t be seeing me any more, Laura,” he called out. “You won’t be needing me any more for the doctor.”
Funeral for my Brother
The year after their divorce they were pulled together by the death of their young son. No longer rebellious, they cried and screamed over him on his coffin, one on each side. No amount of tears or cries could awaken him.
Relatives and friends stood for the Kaddish, overflowing with tears for the little boy, for memories of their own losses. Gratches Funeral Parlor on Division Street, well known
to them, no one taking notice of me as I sat bewildered by all of this in the first row, easier . .
Nobody knocked. The door was left open for Shivah. “You shouldn’t know of any such sorrow ever again,” or mumbling a prayer to my mother and father who were sitting on low stools in stocking feet. “Help yourself to some squimmes or a cut of kugel,” adults consoled each other while we kids had a picnic with gifts of cookies. Nearby a mourning candle burnt slowly in a glass on the sideboard. After evening prayers, a rabbi presiding, my father left, no goodbyes, same as the others,
in the morning the door again opened for anybody. He walked in to sit in shivah near my mother.
When keeping up the Yortzeit yearly did they remember each other at the burning candle? In mourning?
The Fortune Teller
Faces fade but not the kings and queens in Mrs. Waxman’s pisha-paysha cards. When she wanted to get away from her husband and problems in her own house -- her husband didn’t know night from day, spending most of his time in bed -- we would sit around the kitchen table. That’s when the house was warm, more and more wood to the stove, Mrs. Waxman always so cold. We had to keep her warm. My mother wanted her fortune told. I was a good listener, and Mrs. Waxman
threw out good fortunes for us with those cards.
That evening the two of them were competing with each other for those kings in the deck. No way to get that kingly husband of hers out of bed to go looking for a job.
“Give him a cigarette and a pot of coffee and I could go hang myself in this chopped-up flat, one stinken toilet for four floors -- I tell him there are bosses who come to help. ‘What bosses? You want a boss -- find him.’ He’s rid of bosses. He believes in reincarnation and he has seen them in his
life before. He came up from the wheat, the earth, the mother’s milk from the cow, into that bed,and that is where he will stay. No boss is going to get him again, and when he adds up all his lives, he is a thousand years old and so intelligent now nobody will hire him -- or fire. So he already knows
his destiny. Those bosses take all the money for themselves and they’re not going to get him.”
As I write this the world is asleep, it’s four o’clock in the morning. For days now the weather has been warm and sunny. I stay in and write, now trying to recreate that scene in our kitchen with that fortune-teller, how they observed the world, and what their hopes were for their future, to help
them get through the day.
In the two-handed game of pisha-paysha, they study each card to find their hopes, as Mrs. Waxman throws the cards slowly. God forbid an ace of spades. Would that mean death?
“We can’t hide from the ace of spades,” Mrs. Waxman warned my mother. “We can’t live forever. And I’m stuck with him until that card falls.”
“So don’t stop, throw cards,” my mother’s impatience showing, looking for the king to fall on the table for her. Her spirits lifting, “maybe he wouldn’t be so good for the children,” looking at me and rushing to the bedroom to see if my sister was asleep.
“We women don’t stand up and fight for our rights,” Mrs. Waxman said.
“Where are the kings and queens?” my mother said. “That’s what I want to know. Or are you looking for the ace to solve everything? I did my fighting. I wanted a divorce and I got it. Now let’s not curse them. Let’s take another chance.”
Mrs. Waxman stops the cards. “He tells me ‘You should be glad,’ he says, ‘that you got a man in bed.’ God’s gift to women, just don’t touch his little ego.” Stacking up the cards, “Ida, look. A king knocks over a jack, and he fell on top of a queen. Eddie is getting a divorce and she’s got another man.”
“You sure? It’s about time he got another lesson.”
To celebrate the good news, she gets out the old samovar, the wedding present from my grandmother Nashuma, the good soul, a hand-me-down, carried all the way from Russia to Ellis
I never forgot Mrs. Waxman. She filled many of our empty hours.