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Authors: Mordecai Richler

Tags: #Fiction, #General, #Literary, #Short Stories (Single Author)

The Street (5 page)

BOOK: The Street
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“They’re not behaving right. It’s certainly not according to Hoyle,” my father said.

Dr. Katzman continued to be astonished. “It must be willpower alone that keeps her going,” he said. “That, and your excellent care.”

“It’s not my mother any more in the back room, Doctor. It’s an animal. I want her to die.”

“Hush. You don’t mean it. You’re tired.” Dr. Katzman dug into his black bag and produced pills for her to take. “Your wife’s a remarkable woman,” he told my father.

“You don’t so say,” my father replied, embarrassed.

“A born nurse.”

My sister and I used to lie awake talking about our grandmother. “After she dies,” I said, “her hair will go on growing for another twenty-four hours.”

“Says who?”

“Duddy Kravitz. Do you think Uncle Lou will come from New York for the funeral?”

“I suppose so.”

“Boy, that means another fiver for me. Even more for you.”

“You shouldn’t say things like that or her ghost will come back to haunt you.”

“Well, I’ll be able to go to her funeral anyway. I’m not too young any more.”

I was only six years old when my grandfather died, and so I wasn’t allowed to go to his funeral.

I have one imperishable memory of my grandfather. Once he called me into his study, set me down on his lap, and made a drawing of a horse for me. On the horse he drew a rider. While I watched and giggled he gave the rider a beard and the fur-trimmed round hat of a rabbi, a
straimel
, just like he wore.

My grandfather had been a Zaddik, one of the Righteous, and I’ve been assured that to study Talmud with him had been an illuminating experience. I wasn’t allowed to go to his funeral, but years later I was shown the telegrams of condolence that had come from Eire and Poland and even Japan. My grandfather had written many books: a translation of the Book of Splendour (the Zohar) into modern Hebrew, some twenty years work, and lots of slender volumes of sermons, hasidic tales, and rabbinical commentaries. His books had been published in Warsaw and later in New York.

“At the funeral,” my mother said, “they had to have six motorcycle policemen to control the crowds. It was such a heat that twelve women fainted – and I’m
not
counting Mrs. Waxman from upstairs. With her, you know,
anything
to fall into a man’s arms. Even Pinsky’s. And did I tell you that there was even a French Canadian priest there?”

“Aw, you’re kidding me.”

“The priest was some
knacker
. A bishop maybe. He used to study with the
zeyda
. The
zeyda
was a real personality, you know. Spiritual and worldly-wise at the same time. Such personalities they don’t make any more. Today rabbis and peanuts come in the same size.”

But, according to my father, the
zeyda
(his father-in-law) hadn’t been as celebrated as all that. “There are things I could say,” he told me. “There was another side to him.”

My grandfather had sprung from generations and generations of rabbis, his youngest son was a rabbi, but none of his grandchildren would be one. My Cousin Jerry was already a militant socialist. I once heard him say, “When the men at the kosher bakeries went out on strike the
zeyda
spoke up against them on the streets and in the
shuls
. It was of no consequence to him that the men were grossly underpaid. His superstitious followers had to have bread. Grandpappy,” Jerry said, “was a prize reactionary.”

A week after my grandfather died my grandmother suffered a stroke. Her right side was completely paralysed. She couldn’t speak. At first it’s true, she could manage a coherent word or two and move her right hand enough to write her name in Hebrew. Her name was Malka. But her condition soon began to deteriorate.

My grandmother had six children and seven step-children, for my grandfather had been married before. His first wife had died in the old country. Two years later he had married my grandmother, the only daughter of the most affluent man in the
shtetl
, and their marriage had been a singularly happy one. My grandmother had been a beautiful girl. She had also been a shrewd, resourceful, and patient wife. Qualities, I fear, indispensable to life with a Zaddik. For the synagogue paid my grandfather no stipulated salary and much of the money he picked up here and there he had habitually distributed among rabbinical students, needy immigrants and widows. A vice, for such it was to his impecunious family, which made him as
unreliable a provider as a drinker. To carry the analogy further, my grandmother had to make hurried, surreptitious trips to the pawnbroker with her jewellery. Not all of it to be redeemed, either. But her children had been looked after. The youngest, her favourite, was a rabbi in Boston, the oldest was the actor-manager of a Yiddish theatre in New York, and another was a lawyer. One daughter lived in Montreal, two in Toronto. My mother was the youngest daughter and when my grandmother had her stroke there was a family conclave and it was decided that my mother would take care of her. This was my father’s fault. All the other husbands spoke up – they protested hotly that their wives had too much work – they could never manage it – but my father detested quarrels and so he was silent. And my grandmother came to stay with us.

Her bedroom, the back bedroom, had actually been promised to me for my seventh birthday, but now I had to go on sharing a room with my sister. So naturally I was resentful when each morning before I left for school my mother insisted that I go in and kiss my grandmother goodbye.

“Bouyo-bouyo,” was the only sound my grandmother could make.

During those first hopeful months – “Twenty years ago who would have thought there’d be a cure for diabetes?” my father asked. “Where there’s life, you know.” – my grandmother would smile and try to speak, her eyes charged with effort; and I wondered if she knew that I was waiting for her room.

Even later there were times when she pressed my hand urgently to her bosom with her surprisingly strong left arm. But as her illness dragged on and on she. became a condition in the house, something beyond hope or reproach, like the leaky ice-box, there was less recognition and more ritual in those kisses. I came to dread her room. A clutter of sticky medicine bottles and the cracked toilet chair beside the bed; glazed but imploring eyes and a feeble smile, the wet smack
of her crooked lips against my cheeks. I flinched from her touch. And after two years, I protested to my mother, “What’s the use of telling her I’m going here or I’m going there? She doesn’t even recognize me any more.”

“Don’t be fresh. She’s your grandmother.”

My uncle who was in the theatre in New York sent money regularly to help support my grandmother and, for the first few months, so did the other children. But once the initial and sustaining excitement had passed the children seldom came to our house any more. Anxious weekly visits – “And how is she today, poor lamb?” – quickly dwindled to a dutiful monthly looking in, then a semi-annual visit, and these always on the way to somewhere.

When the children did come my mother was severe with them. “I have to lift her on that chair three times a day maybe. And what makes you think I always catch her in time? Sometimes I have to change her linen twice a day. That’s a job I’d like to see your wife do,” she said to my uncle, the rabbi.

“We could send her to the Old People’s Home.”

“Now there’s an idea,” my father said.

“Not so long as I’m alive.” My mother shot my father a scalding look. “Say something, Sam.”

“Quarrelling will get us nowhere. It only creates bad feelings.”

Meanwhile, Dr. Katzman came once a month. “It’s astonishing,” he would say each time. “She’s as strong as a horse.”

“Some life for a person,” my father said. “She can’t speak – she doesn’t recognize anybody – what is there for her?”

The doctor was a cultivated man; he spoke often for women’s clubs, sometimes on Yiddish literature and other times, his rubicund face hot with menace, the voice taking on a doomsday tone, on the cancer threat. “Who are we to judge?” he asked.

Every evening, during the first few months of my grandmother’s illness, my mother would read her a story by Sholem
Aleichem. “Tonight she smiled,” my mother would report defiantly. “She understood. I can tell.”

Bright afternoons my mother would lift the old lady into a wheelchair and put her out in the sun and once a week she gave her a manicure. Somebody always had to stay in the house in case my grandmother called. Often, during the night, she would begin to wail unaccountably and my mother would get up and rock her mother in her arms for hours. But in the fourth year of my grandmother’s illness the strain began to tell. Besides looking after my grandmother, my mother had to keep house for a husband and two children. She became scornful of my father and began to find fault with my sister and me. My father started to spend his evenings playing pinochle at Tansky’s Cigar & Soda. Weekends he took me to visit his brothers and sisters. Wherever my father went people had little snippets of advice for him.

“Sam, you might as well be a bachelor. One of the other children should take the old lady for a while. You’re just going to have to put your foot down for once.”

“Yeah, in your face maybe.”

My Cousin Libby, who was at McGill, said, “This could have a very damaging effect on the development of your children. These are their formative years, Uncle Samuel, and the omnipresence of death in the house …”

“What you need is a boy friend,” my father said.
“And how.”

After supper my mother took to falling asleep in her chair, even in the middle of Lux Radio Theatre. One minute she would be sewing a patch in my breeches or making a list of girls to call for a bingo party, proceeds for the Talmud Torah, and the next she would be snoring. Then, inevitably, there came the morning she just couldn’t get out of bed and Dr. Katzman had to come round a week before his regular visit. “Well, well, this won’t do, will it?”

Dr. Katzman led my father into the kitchen. “Your wife’s got a gallstone condition,” he said.

My grandmother’s children met again, this time without my mother, and decided to put the old lady in the Jewish Old People’s Home on Esplanade Street. While my mother slept an ambulance came to take my grandmother away.

“It’s for the best,” Dr. Katzman said, but my father was in the back room when my grandmother held on tenaciously to the bedpost, not wanting to be moved by the two men in white.

“Easy does it, granny,” the younger man said.

Afterwards my father did not go in to see my mother. He went out for a walk.

When my mother got out of bed two weeks later her cheeks had regained their normal pinkish hue; for the first time in months, she actually joked with me. She became increasingly curious about how I was doing in school and whether or not I shined my shoes regularly. She began to cook special dishes for my father again and resumed old friendships with the girls on the parochial school board. Not only did my father’s temper improve, but he stopped going to Tansky’s every night and began to come home early from work. But my grandmother’s name was seldom mentioned. Until one evening, after I’d had a fight with my sister, I said, “Why can’t I move into the back bedroom now?”

My father glared at me. “Big-mouth.”

“It’s empty, isn’t it?”

The next afternoon my mother put on her best dress and coat and new spring hat.

“Don’t go looking for trouble,” my father said.

“It’s been a month. Maybe they’re not treating her right.”

“They’re experts.”

“Did you think I was never going to visit her? I’m not inhuman, you know.”

“Alright, go.” But after she had gone my father stood by the window and said, “I was born lucky, and that’s it.”

I sat on the outside stoop watching the cars go by. My father waited on the balcony above, cracking peanuts. It was
six o’clock, maybe later, when the ambulance slowed down and rocked to a stop right in front of our house. “I knew it,” my father said. “I was born with all the luck.”

My mother got out first, her eyes red and swollen, and hurried upstairs to make my grandmother’s bed.

“You’ll get sick again,” my father said.

“I’m sorry, Sam, but what could I do? From the moment she saw me she cried and cried. It was terrible.”

“They’re recognized experts there. They know how to take care of her better than you do.”

“Experts? Expert murderers you mean. She’s got bedsores, Sam. Those dirty little Irish nurses they don’t change her linen often enough they hate her. She must have lost twenty pounds in there.”

“Another month and you’ll be flat on your back again. I’ll write you a guarantee, if you want.”

My father became a regular at Tansky’s again and, once more, I had to go in and kiss my grandmother in the morning. Amazingly, she had begun to look like a man. Little hairs had sprouted on her chin, she had grown a spiky grey moustache, and she was practically bald.

Yet again my uncles and aunts sent five dollar bills, though erratically, to help pay for my grandmother’s support. Elderly people, former followers of my grandfather, came to inquire about the old lady’s health. They sat in the back bedroom with her, leaning on their canes, talking to themselves and rocking to and fro. “The Holy Shakers,” my father called them. I avoided the seamed, shrunken old men because they always wanted to pinch my cheeks or trick me with a dash of snuff and laugh when I sneezed. When the visit with my grandmother was over the old people would unfailingly sit in the kitchen with my mother for another hour, watching her make
lokshen
, slurping lemon tea out of a saucer. They would recall the sayings and books and charitable deeds of the late Zaddik.

“At the funeral,” my mother never wearied of telling them, “they had to have six motorcycle policemen to control the crowds.”

In the next two years there was no significant change in my grandmother’s condition, though fatigue, ill-temper, and even morbidity enveloped my mother again. She fought with her brothers and sisters and once, after a particularly bitter quarrel, I found her sitting with her head in her hands. “If, God forbid, I had a stroke,” she said, “would you send me to the Old People’s Home?”

BOOK: The Street
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