Материалы к занятию
I always loved our Saturday morning walks home from the synagogue, when I had my mother all to myself. Our conversation drifted easily from one subject to the next, and I reveled in her undivided attention. I could tell her about any problems I was having or ask any question that crossed my mind, even those that my father would have found pointless. While my father offered advice, my mother offered comfort and love. My father never joined us; he preferred to open the shop early on Saturdays, hoping for weekend business. My mother understood. By then, even I knew that it was a struggle to keep the shop open at all. The Depression hit Greensboro hard, as it did everywhere, and the shop sometimes went days without a single customer. Many people were unemployed, and even more were hungry. People stood in lines for soup or bread. Many of the local banks had failed, taking people’s savings with them. My father was the type to set money aside in good times, but by 1939 times were difficult even for him.
My mother had always worked with my father, though seldom out front with the customers. Back then, men—and our clientele was almost exclusively men—expected another man to help them, in both the selection and the fitting of suits. My mother, however, kept the storeroom door propped open, which allowed her a perfect view of the customer. My mother, I must say, was a genius at her craft. My father would tug and pull and mark the fabric in the appropriate places, but my mother in a single glance would know immediately whether or not to adjust the marks my father had made. In her mind’s eye, she could see the customer in the completed suit, knowing the exact line of every crease and seam. My father understood this — it was the reason he positioned the mirror where she could see it. Though some men might have felt threatened, it made my father proud. One of my father’s Rules for Life was to marry a woman who was smarter than you. “I did this,” he would say to me, “and you should do it, too. I say, why do all the thinking?”
My mother, I must admit, really was smarter than my father. Though she never mastered the art of cooking—my mother should have been banned from the kitchen—she spoke four languages and could quote Dostoyevsky in Russian; she was an accomplished classical pianist and had attended the University of Vienna at a time when female students were rare. My father, on the other hand, had never gone to college. Like me, he’d worked in his father’s haberdashery since he was a boy, and he was good with numbers and customers. And like me, he’d first seen his wife-to-be at the synagogue, soon after she’d arrived in Greensboro.
There, however, is where the similarity ends, because I often wondered whether my parents were happy as a couple. It would be easy to point out that times were different back then, that people married less for love than for practical reasons. And I’m not saying they weren’t right for each other in many ways. They made good partners, my parents, and I never once heard them argue. Yet I often wondered whether they were ever in love. In all the years I lived with them, I never saw them kiss, nor were they the kind of couple who felt comfortable holding hands. In the evenings, my father would do his bookkeeping at the kitchen table while my mother sat in the sitting room, a book open in her lap. Later, after my parents retired and I took over the business, I hoped they might grow closer. I thought they might travel together, taking cruises or going sightseeing, but after the first visit to Jerusalem, my father always traveled alone. They settled into separate lives, continuing to drift apart, becoming strangers again. By the time they were in their eighties, it seemed as though they’d run out of anything at all to say to each other. They could spend hours in the same room without uttering a single word. When Ruth and I visited, we tended to spend time first with one and then the other, and in the car afterward, Ruth would squeeze my hand, as if promising herself that we would never end up the same way.
Ruth was always more bothered by their relationship than either of them seemed to be. My parents seemed to have little desire to bridge the gap between them. They were comfortable in their own worlds. As they aged, while my father grew closer to his heritage, my mother developed a passion for gardening, and she spent hours pruning flowers in the backyard. My father loved to watch old westerns and the evening news, while my mother had her books. And, of course, they were always interested in the artwork Ruth and I collected, the art that eventually made us rich.
“You didn’t come back to the shop for a long time,” I said to Ruth.
Outside the car, the snow has blanketed the windshield and continues to fall. According to the Weather Channel, it should have stopped by now, but despite the wonders of modern technology and forecasting, weather predictions are still fallible. It is another reason I find the channel interesting.
“My mother bought the hat. We had no money for anything more.”
“But you thought I was handsome.”
“No. Your ears were too big. I like delicate ears.”
She’s right about my ears. My ears are big, and they stick out in the same way my father’s did, but unlike my father, I was ashamed of them. When I was young, maybe eight or nine, I took some extra cloth from the shop and cut it into a long strip, and I spent the rest of the summer sleeping with the strip wrapped around my head, hoping they would grow closer to my scalp. While my mother ignored it when she’d check on me at night, I sometimes heard my father whispering to her in an almost affronted tone. He has my ears, he’d say to her. What is so bad about my ears?
I told Ruth this story shortly after we were married and she laughed. Since then, she would sometimes tease me about my ears like she is doing now, but in all our years together, she never once teased me in a way that felt mean.
“I thought you liked my ears. You told me that whenever you kissed them.”
“I liked your face. You had a kind face. Your ears just happened to come with it. I did not want to hurt your feelings.”
“A kind face?”
“Yes. There was a softness in your eyes, like you saw only the good in people. I noticed it even though you barely looked at me.”
“I was trying to work up the courage to ask if I could walk you home.”
“No,” she says, shaking her head. Though her image is blurred, her voice is youthful, the sixteen-year-old I’d met so long ago. “I saw you many times at the synagogue after that, and you never once asked me. I even waited for you sometimes, but you went past me without a word.”
“You didn’t speak English.”
“By then, I had begun to understand some of the language, and I could talk a little. If you had asked, I would have said, ‘Okay, Ira. I will walk with you.’”
She says these last words with an accent. Viennese German, soft and musical. Lilting. In later years her accent faded, but it never quite disappeared.
“Your parents wouldn’t have allowed it.”
“My mother would have. She liked you. Your mother told her that you would own the business one day.”
“I knew it! I always suspected you married me for my money.”
“What money? You had no money. If I wanted to marry a rich man, I would have married David Epstein. His father owned the textile mill and they lived in a mansion.”
This, too, was one of the running jokes in our marriage. While my mother had been speaking the truth, even she knew it was not the sort of business that would make anyone wealthy. It started, and remained, a small business until the day I finally sold the shop and retired.
“I remember seeing the two of you at the soda parlor across the street. David met you there almost every day during the summer.”
“I liked chocolate sodas. I had never had them before.”
“I was jealous.”
“You were right to be,” she says. “He was rich and handsome and his ears were perfect.”
I smile, wishing I could see her better. But the darkness makes that impossible. “For a while I thought the two of you were going to get married.”
“He asked me more than once, and I would tell him that I was too young, that he would have to wait until after I finished college. But I was lying to him. The truth was that I already had my eye on you. That is why I always insisted on going to the soda parlor near your father’s shop.”
I knew this, of course. But I like hearing her say it.
“I would stand by the window and watch you as you sat with him.”
“I saw you sometimes.” She smiles. “I even waved once, and still, you never asked to walk with me.”
“David was my friend.”
This is true, and it remained true for most of our lives. We were social with both David and his wife, Rachel, and Ruth tutored one of their children.
“It had nothing to do with friendship. You were afraid of me. You have always been shy.”
“You must be mistaking me for someone else. I was debonair, a ladies’ man, a young Frank Sinatra. I sometimes had to hide from the many women who were chasing me.”
“You stared at your feet when you walked and turned red when I waved. And then, in August, you moved away. To attend university.”
I went to school at William & Mary in Williamsburg, Virginia, and I didn’t return home until December. I saw Ruth twice at the synagogue that month, both times from a distance, before I went back to school. In May, I came home for the summer to work at the shop, and by then World War II was raging in Europe. Hitler had conquered Poland and Norway, vanquished Belgium, Luxembourg, and the Netherlands, and was making mincemeat of the French. In every newspaper, in every conversation, the talk was only of war. No one knew whether America would enter the conflict, and the mood was grim. Weeks later, the French would be out of the war for good.
“You were still seeing David when I returned.”
“But I had also become friends with your mother in the year you were gone. While my father was working, my mother and I would go to the shop. We would speak of Vienna and our old lives. My mother and I were homesick, of course, but I was angry, too. I did not like North Carolina. I did not like this country. I felt that I did not belong here. Despite the war, part of me wanted to go home. I wanted to help my family. We were very worried for them.”
I see her turn toward the window, and in the silence, I know that Ruth is thinking about her grandparents, her aunts and uncles, her cousins. On the night before Ruth and her parents left for Switzerland, dozens of her extended family members had gathered for a farewell dinner. There were anxious good-byes and promises to stay in touch, and although some were excited for them, nearly everyone thought Ruth’s father was not only overreacting, but foolish to have given up everything for an uncertain future. However, a few of them had slipped Ruth’s father some gold coins, and in the six weeks it took to journey to North Carolina, it was those coins that provided shelter and kept food in their stomachs. Aside from Ruth and her parents, her entire family had stayed in Vienna. By the summer of 1940, they were wearing the Star of David on their arms and largely prohibited from working. By then, it was too late for them to escape.
My mother told me about these visits with Ruth and their worries. My mother, like Ruth, still had family back in Vienna, but like so many, we had no idea what was coming or just how terrible it would eventually be. Ruth didn’t know, either, but her father had known. He had known while there was still time to flee. He was, I later came to believe, the most intelligent man I ever met.
“Your father was building furniture then?”
“Yes,” Ruth said. “None of the universities would hire him, so he did what he had to do to feed us. But it was hard for him. He was not meant to build furniture. When he first started, he would come home exhausted, with sawdust in his hair and bandages on his hands, and he would fall asleep in the chair almost as soon as he walked in the door. But he never complained. He knew we were the lucky ones. After he woke, he would shower and then put on his suit for dinner, his own way of reminding himself of the man he once had been. And we would have lively conversations at dinner. He would ask what I had learned at school that day, and listen closely as I answered. Then he would lead me to think of things in new ways. ‘Why do you suppose that is?’ he would ask, or, ‘Have you ever considered this?’ I knew what he was doing, of course. Once a teacher, always a teacher, and he was good at it, which is why he was able to become a professor once again after the war. He taught me how to think for myself and to trust my own instincts, as he did for all his students.”
I study her, reflecting on how significant it was that Ruth, too, had become a teacher, and my mind flashes once more to Daniel McCallum. “And your father helped you learn all about art in the process.”
“Yes,” she says, a mischievous lilt in her voice. “He helped me do that, too.”