Jewish children's books-middle grades
Jewish children's books-young teen books
Jewish teen books
Jewish inspirational books
Links to Jewish educational sites
|In Full Bloom
Shoshana A. Schwartz
Copyright © 1998 by Shoshana Schwartz
Gail saw it so clearly in her mind. It was tulips protruding from the barely thawed earth... begonias in full bloom...snapdragons and petunias and marigolds. It was life, springing forth from dormancy. From inactivity. From death.
Orphaned in childhood, Gail is raised by relatives who cannot understand her constant and growing interest in religious observance and Jewish life. When she meets Esther, who becomes her teacher and opens a window onto Judaism for her, Gail blossoms. But will this drive a wedge between her and her family?
This first novel by gifted author Shoshana Schwartz is a sensitive and true-to-life portrayal of a young woman's search for meaning; of her struggle with loyalties; of her strength and willingness to face the painful tragedy that marked her young life, and to trust in the promise of the future.
Gail's story is also the story of three generations whose lives reflect the turbulence of Jewish history. Ultimately it is the story of Divine Providence in our lives.
Shoshana Schwartz is a former kollel wife and educator who has recently made aliyah to Cretz Yisrael together with her husband and four children.
I would like to thank the following people who, in so many ways, helped me with the writing and publication of this, my first novel:
Batsheva Lasdun and Janet Eisenberg, for their critique, excitement, encouragement, and optimism.
My mother-in-law Leah Schwartz, and sister-in-law Mati Schwartz, for their review of my "unpolished" manuscript and their helpful comments.
My father-in-law Shmuel Schwartz, for setting the facts straight in two languages.
Rabbi Leib Kelman, for his assistance in interpreting the words of Chazal and for his clarification of certain issues of halachab and hasbkafah.
Jules and Judith Leventhal, for making the initial connection for me; David Leventhal, for getting my manuscript read; Yitzchak Feldheim and Yaakov Feldheim of Feldheim Publishers, and Joyce Bennett, editor, who were so very helpful and always treated me and my manuscript with the utmost respect; Bracha Steinberg, who designed the book; Harvey Klineman, who designed the jacket; Devora Rhein, copyeditor; Aviva Bookin, proofreader; and Hannah Hartman, typesetter.
Special thanks go to my husband, Sender, for his endless patience and unwavering support and enthusiasm during the writing of this novel, and the rewriting, and the rewriting....
"OVER HERE!" THE BEARDED man shouted. He could barely be heard above the noise of the gusting winds. But these boys seemed not to notice the rocking of the ship, nor the danger. Though wave after waved poured over the rails, they obediently followed the bearded man down below. They were used to doing as they were told.
As they were about to close the hatch, the last boy, younger and smaller than the rest, was nearly swept up by a huge wave. He was thrown to the deck amidst a deluge of freezing saltwater. He cried out in pain and fear.
His rescuer seemed to appear out of nowhere. Another boy, his cropped brown hair soaked, quickly picked the younger boy up and put him over his shoulder. He took him to the relative safety and warmth of the cabin down below. Somewhere he managed to find a spare blanket and wrapped the boy up in it. He calmed the younger boy and stayed with him until he fell asleep.
As the ship docked the next morning, the young boy looked up into the sparkling clear blue sky. It bore no trace of the tempest the day before. The boy searched for his rescuer, but in vain; he had already left the ship. He looked upward once more as he vowed to himself to find the older boy who had saved him. And then he planted his foot down for the first time onto this new land called America.
* IN FULL BLOOM £ 3
GILA LEANED AGAINST THE wall, twisting a lock of brown hair around her finger. "So, Gila, what's on your mind?" Esther asked. "What makes you think something's on my mind?"
Esther smiled. "It's written all over your face."
"Am I so transparent?" Gila wondered.
"You forget who you're talking to," Esther answered unreservedly. "You never could keep any secrets from me."
Now it was Gila's turn to smile. "You're right."
Gila's thoughts turned inward. She was so comfortable here, more at home in Esther's house than anywhere else, including her own apartment. Gila surveyed the small house, as if to make sure nothing had changed since she'd last visited. The massive bookcase stood guard over the living room, overstuffed as always with Hebrew volumes of all sizes and subjects, while the tiny end table next to her was bare except for a box of tissues. The recliner was still there, but the velvety fabric had frayed in more than one place. A large, framed mirror hung behind it, making the room seem bigger than it was. The living room gradually turned into the dining room, intersected by both the kitchen and a narrow hallway leading to the bathroom and then the bedrooms. In one of them, Gila knew, Esther's youngest son now lay sleeping.
Esther waited for Gila to continue. When she didn't, Esther asked casually, "How's your family?"
"They're fine, Baruch Hashem" Gila said. She looked up seriously at her friend. "You know, I think you're the only person besides me who calls them that."
"Calls who what?"
"My aunt and uncle. Other people always ask, 'How are your aunt and uncle?' But you always ask how my family is."
"Aren't they your family? Am I wrong?" Esther wanted to know.
"No. No, not at all. They are my family. They practically raised me. It's just that no one else puts it that way." Gila studied herself in the mirror. She surveyed her slender shoulders, her long brown hair, her fair complexion with just a hint of freckles, and her thoughtful brown eyes. "I guess everyone else just sees me as an orphan."
The room was still and silent as the word "orphan" hung in the air. It's such a lonely word, Gila brooded.
"Come, sit." The words shook Gila out of her reverie. Esther had come back from the kitchen with two glasses of juice, and Gila realized that she hadn't even noticed that Esther had left the room. Gila reluctantly sat on the edge of the couch. She thanked Esther for the drink and absentmindedly stirred the ice with her finger. Esther did not pressure her to talk. She knew that Gila would open up when she was ready.
After several minutes of silence, Gila said, "Hashem has given me many things. I have so much to be grateful for."
"I mean, I sort of feel that He's been watching over me at so many stages of my life."
"Yes, well, now is not any different, of course, it's just that...." She stopped.
Esther continued, "It's just that you are having a problem and you think that if you talk about it, that means you are ungrateful to Hashem."
Gila permitted herself a small smile.
"So Gila what's all this talk about orphans?"
"I guess I'm feeling a little sorry for myself. I keep getting set up with guys who are on a different wavelength. I'm looking for someone who's very committed to a Torah way of life."
"There are plenty of guys who fit into that category," Esthe said.
"Sure there are, but they're not looking for Gila Roth," she said bitterly.
Esther considered her friend's words. "So who are they looking for?" she asked.
Gila put the glass down on the end table. Her eyes floated upward as she described the picture she saw in her mind. "Young, pretty miss - Eighteen would be nice, but they'll take twenty or twenty one even, if they must. Solid observant background. Good yichus. A Rebbe or two somewhere; a Rosh Yeshiva would be nice. Went to the right school, probably seminary, too. Lives with her parents, of course. Teaches, or works for her father, just waiting to be married off." She looked at Esther.
Esther looked back squarely at her friend. "You mean someone like me." It was not a question.
Gila nodded slightly.
"Too bad," Esther smiled. "I'm already married. Now what will all those single guys do?"
"They'll settle for less," Gila replied, in the same bitter voice she had used earlier. She stood up once more and looked into the mirror.
"Now hold it right there. You may be different, but you're not less'."
"I'm also not married," Gila retorted, spinning around to face Esther. "Everyone else I know, all my friends, are married already, lots of them with kids. I just have too many strikes against me."
"Strike one, I don't live with my parents. I don't even have parents!" Gila heard the tension in her voice, and took a deep breath. "Strike two," she continued, "I have a career. Strike three, I'm twenty-six years old; and strike four and here's the biggie I'm a ba'alas teshuvah."
"I hate to say this, Gila, but that sounds incredibly normal."
Gila was incredulous. "Normal? By whose standards?"
"Mine, for one thing. But," she put her hand out to stop Gila from speaking, "I'm just an 'old' married lady, so I don't count."
Gila shook her head and smiled. "I wouldn't say that."
"No, but you'd think it," she answered, returning Gila's smile. Esther grew serious again. "Listen, Gila. I understand what you're saying. A girl grows up in a normal, healthy home, with two parents who love her and instill in her all the right values. They give her a good education, the proper Jewish outlook, and marry her off as soon as she's old enough."
"Yeah," Gila put in, "the 'ideal' scenario."
"Well that's just it," Esther explained. "Who says it's ideal?"
"Everybody!" Gila blurted out.
"You're forgetting the Sages. 'Kol man d'avid rachmana l'tav avid' Do you know what that means?"
"Everything that Hashem does is good," she quoted.
Esther nodded. "Good. That's the translation. But what does it mean?"
Gila sat back on the couch. "You're the teacher, you tell me."
"Hashem put you where you are for a reason," Esther explained. "If He had wanted you to be born into a Rosh Yeshiva's family, you would have been. If that would have been good for you, then it would have happened. Do you think Hashem just did the best He could for you?"
Gila pondered the question. Finally, she said, "No. I really believe that Hashem runs the world, and that He knows what He's doing. I'm not trying to second-guess Him." She leaned back and closed her eyes. "I often wonder what my life would have been like if my parents hadn't been killed. I would have stayed in Hollidan, had a bat mitzvah like everyone else, and then...I don't know. I would never have met you." She opened her eyes and looked at her friend, her mentor. "And if I hadn't met you when I did, then I wouldn't have wanted to learn more about being religious. I probably would have been satisfied with my Judaism the way it was, like my parents."
"Maybe," Esther said, "and maybe not. You do love to get to the essence of things. Perhaps you would have learned enough in Hebrew School to make you want to know what it is like to be Sabbath observant. After all, I would have been your teacher."
Gila smiled. "True," she said. She thought some more, and her smile disappeared. "So, you think that even if my parents would have been alive I could still have become religious."
Esther said, "I was waiting for you to say that. But how do you know? Growing up without your parents has made you very strong. Who knows if you would have had that kind of character otherwise? Maybe Yiddishkeit would have seemed like too much for you to take on. Or, imagine what it might have been like if your parents had been observant, and then when they died you had to go live with your aunt and uncle. Or, what about if you were observant and they were alive? What if you developed this rebellious streak? Or "
"I get the point," she sighed. "You're saying that I have no way of knowing what my life would have been like, or what it would be like now, if things had been different."
"Yes," Esther agreed, "but I'm also saying that there is no 'ideal' scenario. It may be easier, more convenient to grow up religious, but who says it's better?"
Gila didn't answer. Her eyes strayed to Esther's wedding picture. A beautiful, young bride stood next to a handsome groom, also young, with an air of confidence. Esther followed her gaze.
"Do you know that Yerachmiel is a ba'al tesbuvah?" Esther asked.
It was a bombshell. "Yerachmiel? No way! He's so...normal!"
Esther shook her head. "Meaning what? That you're not? Why do you feel so inferior? Why do you think you're less 'normal' because you're a ba'alas teshuvah She shook away the thoughts. "Yes, Yerachmiel's a ba'al teshuvab. That's one of the reasons I married him. Yerachmiel is such an enthusiast. He cherishes each mitzvah, each opportunity to serve Hashem. You see the way he makes Kiddush on Shabbos, the way he blesses the kids. You know how he loves putting up the sukkah, even though he's all thumbs. He just loves being religious, and he's very happy. Who knows if he would be that way if he had always been religious? Maybe he would have taken his religion for granted. Maybe Sukkos would have been just another holiday to him, or an extended weekend off. AgSin, maybe not. You don't have to be a ba'al teshuvab to love serving Hashem. The point is, you can't choose your parents or your upbringing. Everyone gets what they need. It's your job to figure out how to serve Hashem with what He's given you."
Esther stopped and surveyed her friend. Gila was fingering a few strands of hair, slowly winding them around her finger.
"I'm sorry if I'm being hard on you," Esther said. "It's not what you expected to hear, is it?"
Gila shook her head.
"I'm not unsympathetic," Esther said. "I just want you to be honest with yourself. It's okay to be frustrated with your situation."
"But you're saying it's not!" Gila said, exasperated. "You're saying I have to love the fact that I wasn't born observant, and that my parents died when I was so young!"
"No, Gila, I'm not saying that. I'm saying you have to accept it."
Gila sighed, and was quiet for a long time, while Esther left her to her thoughts.
Finally, Esther touched Gila's head, knocking gently. "Hello," she called, "anybody home?"
Gila smiled in response. "I'm still here," she answered softly. "You're saying that there is no ideal scenario, that you get what you get and it's your job to make the best of it. No one has the ideal scenario," she repeated.
"Yes, no one." She paused. "And everyone."
Gila sighed once more. "But there are still plenty of guys who won't go out with me because I'm a ba'alas teshuvah."
"Well, you'll just have to marry someone with an open mind," Esther responded.
The telephone rang loudly. Esther answered it, asked the caller to hold on, and excused herself.
Gila was left with her own troubled thoughts. Maybe she should have started dating earlier, but her aunt and uncle had thought she was far too young to consider marriage. She never liked to displease them, although she had certainly done that when she became religious. There were many issues, of course, that she'd had to take a stand on. But she'd discovered that there were some times that their wishes did not contradict Halachah, and she was able to give in on certain things.
Gila smiled at the thought. Esther was right, of course. She would need to find someone open-minded.
"I'm glad to see you smiling. I have some interesting news."
"That," she said, pointing to the telephone, "was a certain young man who was calling about one Gila Roth."
"Are you kidding?" Gila asked.
"Would I kid you about a shidduchV She smiled. "Would you like the details?"
"First tell me," Gila said, "if he's over twelve inches tall or under bar mitzvah."
"I'll tel! you even more than that. He's calling you tonight."
"What? How can he do that? I haven't even agreed to go out with him! What kind of a shadchan gives a boy a number before the girl knows anything about him?"
"This kind," Esther replied, pointing to herself, "for I am the shadchan, or shadchanta to be precise. And before you get all hysterical, I'll tell you about him. His name is Ephraim Feldman, and he is twenty-nine years old. He teaches in Derech ha-Torah and is a student of Rav Kooperman. In fact, he has semichah from him."
Esther waited for her last words to sink in. When she saw that they had had their desired effect, she went on. "I don't know his family personally, but my brother-in-law was friendly with him in high school, and he recalls that although Ephraim is an only child, theirs was always a busy home, filled with many guests."
Gila was doubtful. He sounded a little too good to be true. Her face revealed her skepticism.
"Oh, yes," Esther added. "I told him all about you. He sounded very interested in you, and was impressed that you became observant on your own."
"I hate to ask this," Gila said, "but why isn't he married yet?"
"For the same reason that you're not," Esther replied. Gila began to object, but Esther continued, "He just hasn't found the right one yet."
"SO, HOW DO YOU know Esther?" Gila smiled. "Now that's a long story," she answered. "I'm not in any hurry," Ephraim said.
Gila was torn. After an average first date, she had agreed to a second. She was beginning to like Ephraim, but she didn't feel quite ready to talk about Esther, because if she talked about Esther, she'd end up talking about the years of emptiness which had led her to meeting Esther in the first place. She decided to gloss over it.
"Well, when I was sixteen I went to a shul to give a donation in memory of my parents, for their yahrtzeit, and Esther was there. We just hit it off, and we've been friends ever since."
Ephraim raised his eyebrows and pursed his lips. "Doesn't sound like a very long story to me," he commented.
Gila smiled. "Well, I guess there's a little more to the story. I'll tell you the rest some other time." If there is another time, she thought.
Ephraim seemed to understand her uncompleted sentence. "Okay," he said.
"Tell me more about the kiruv program you're involved in," Gila suggested.
"That's a long story, too," he teased. "But I'll tell you if you really want to know."
Gila wanted to know.
"It's a program for teenagers. High school juniors and seniors, mostly. They're old enough to make some important life decisions, but are still living at home. You know what I mean." He looked pointedly at Gila.
Gila wondered how much Esther had told him, and how much was shrewd guessing on his part. She wasn't sure she was ready for the answer to that riddle.
Ephraim continued, "I got involved, oh, about five years ago. My parents always had tons of guests coming in and out of the house. I'm an only child, and I guess it was their way of dealing with the silence, especially after I went off to yeshiva. Anyway, one time we had this family over for Shabbos. The parents were just becoming religious, just starting, and they were all excited about it, but the kids were just coming along for the ride. They saw only a bunch of rules and regulations, and couldn't make head or tail of anything. I really liked those kids, two boys, fifteen and seventeen. We starting talking, and I discovered that we really had a lot in common. That's when I got into kiruv work."
Gila started thinking about "rules and regulations," but stopped when he said they had a lot in common.
"Really?" Gila prompted. "What could you possibly have had in common with two kids like that?"
"Well, for one thing, they were real mischief-makers. They had nothing against religion per se, but they resented their parents' assumptions that they had no feelings on the matter, and they'd find little ways to get back at their parents."
"For example, they'd 'forget' which dishes were meat and which were dairy, or they'd 'forget' it was Shabbos, would bring non-Jewish friends over just to see what would happen, things along those lines."
"And you?" Gila inquired.
"I used to be that way, too."
"Really?" Gila said again.
IN FULL BLOOM
"Yes," Ephraim answered honestly. "My parents had very high expectations of me when I was growing up. Don't get me wrong. They have always done the best they could and more. I guess that was the problem." "In what way?"
Ephraim's eyes seemed to measure Gila. He spoke slowly, thoughtfully. "My parents are Holocaust survivors. When they came to America, they wanted so badly to build lives for themselves here. They were married for nine years before I was born. All my parents' hopes and dreams depended on me, and me alone. I always felt I had to take the place of their families that had been murdered by the Nazis, as well as that of all my unborn siblings. It was nothing they did specifically, and they never told me that, it was just the feeling that I always had," "That's a big burden to carry around." Ephraim looked at Gila once more. "Yes." Gila averted her eyes.
Ephraim continued, "So when I was young, I acted out in little ways. Nothing too outlandish, but I certainly kept my parents on their toes."
"I'm sure you don't mean you'd forget which was meat and dairy," Gila said.
Ephraim smiled. "Not quite. I'd do things that could be brushed aside as 'boys will be boys' kinds of things. One time, we had this rebbe who absolutely forbade us to wear knitted yarmul-kas. He hated them! If he caught you wearing one, he'd take it away and give you one of those silk-like beanies, you know, like you get at a bar mitzvah?"
"He always kept a few of them in his drawer, just in case. So every day for a week, I wore a different knitted yarmulka. And every day, he took it away and made me wear a beanie. I saw he had only one left, so the next day, I got the entire class to come wearing knitted yarmulkas. He couldn't take them all away, because he didn't have enough beanies to go around. And he couldn't single me out, because we all had them on!" Ephraim laughed at the memory.
Gila laughed, too.
"Here's another one. In yeshiva we had this English teacher who would accept almost any excuse to miss class, as long as you had a note from the principal or another teacher. So I told my rebbe actually a bunch of us did this that I needed an extra period to go over my Gemara, and he gave me a note saying I could miss English class. We had this whole system of rotation, who got to take off when, who would be the lookouts, and a whole bunch of us went down to the gym to play basketball."
"You mean you played basketball instead of being in class?" Gila asked, unbelieving.
"Hmm. I think you were more impressed with my first story," Ephraim said.
"I'm not so sure," Gila replied.
"But you thought it was funny." ..
Gila nodded. "Yes, I did. I guess I'm not as straight as I used to be."
"Oh?" Ephraim encouraged her.
Gila felt like she was at the top of a steep roller coaster. She was really beginning to like Ephraim. He smiled easily, and was obviously very intelligent, despite his self-portrayal as a class clown. Could she see eye to eye with someone who viewed authority so differently than she did? Although, as she had just admitted, she wasn't quite as straight as she used to be. She wasn't sure how this would go. But what really struck Gila was his candor. She took the plunge.
"It really is a long story," she said.
"COME ON, COME ON, you've got it! You've got it!" Roger cheered.
Gail's eyes shone as she wobbled toward her father. Roger was amazed at how quickly Gail learned to keep her balance on her new bike. He and Sarah had been unsure what to get their daughter for her seventh birthday, but it seemed they had made the right decision.
"Dinner," Sarah called from the kitchen window.
"Okay, pumpkin. Time to go in," Roger said.
"Just five more minutes, Daddy. Please?" Gail begged.
"Hmm. One more minute, and then it's time to go in. Deal?"
"Thanks, Daddy. One more minute."
After dinner, Roger and Sarah got dressed to go out, while Gail got ready for bed.
"Why can't I come with you, Mommy?" Gail whined. "I want to see Aunt Judy and Uncle Michael, too."
"It's not a party for children, Gail. We'll be back home very late. I told you that already."
"But it's my birthday! It's not fair," Gail whimpered.
"None of that, now," Sarah snapped.
Gail switched tactics. "Daddy, I'll be very good, and I'll go to bed right away when we get home, and..."
"Sorry, pumpkin," her father said. "Mommy's right. It's too late for you."
Gail sighed. Mommy always said no, but often she could appeal to her father.
"Who will stay with me?" Gail asked.
"Oh no!" Gail cried. "Last time she came she made me eat peas!"
Roger smiled. "Well, pumpkin, you've already had dinner and a special birthday dessert so I promise you won't have to eat peas." He hugged his daughter, who squeezed him back fiercely.
The doorbell rang. Sarah went to let Stephanie in.
"You be a good girl, and Daddy will bring you home something special, okay?"
"Okay, Daddy." ..
"Come on, Roger," Sarah said as she entered the kitchen. "She'll be fine. It's time she grew up a little. We'd better get going." Sarah went to the car, slamming the door closed behind her.
"Wait!" Gail cried. "Mommy didn't say good-night to me!" Tears sprang to her eyes.
Roger gave Gail two kisses on her forehead. "One from Mommy, one from me. Goodnight, pumpkin. See you in the morning."
Roger left Gail with Stephanie and went to join his wife. Off they sped in their brand new green Chevy.
Stephanie played a few games with Gail and then put her to bed. About an hour later, Stephanie answered the phone.
"This is Judy Berman, Mr. Roth's sister. Is Mr. Roth still there?"
"No, they left around seven," Stephanie informed her.
"Seven?" Judy asked. She looked at her watch. It was almost nine o'clock. "It only takes an hour to drive from Hollidan to Larchmont. I wonder what has happened."
"There was probably traffic," Stephanie said.
"Yes. Probably," Judy said. She looked at her watch again. "Thank you. Oh, there's the bell. I'll bet it's them. 'Bye!" She hung up the phone.
Stephanie munched some potato chips and turned on the news. Same old stuff, she thought. A law being passed about voting rights or something, a hurricane in the south, a car accident. It looked like a bad one. The newscaster said something about everyone being killed instantly.
Something caught Stephanie's attention. Yes, that was it. The location. It was right here in Hollidan. And the car. The car looked familiar. Where had she seen that car before? Suddenly she realized whose car it was. A green Chevy. Stephanie began to tremble.
When Gail woke up in the morning, Stephanie was gone, but her Aunt Judy and Uncle Michael were there, sitting by her bed. She thought she was still dreaming about the party she had missed. Gail rubbed her eyes. "Uncle Michael! Aunt Judy! What are you doing here? Did the party come here instead?"
"No, Gail," her aunt said softly. "We came..." she faltered.
Michael continued, "We came to be with you."
"Why?" Gail asked anxiously. "Where are Mommy and Daddy?"
"They're far away," Michael said, his voice unsteady.
"Where are they?" Gail repeated.
Judy and Michael exchanged looks. They had rehearsed this scene a dozen times. They were going to say her parents had gone to heaven that they were with God because that was what her brother Roger would have said, not because it was what they themselves believed.
But now Judy could not get the words out. She could not hold back her tears any longer. "They're...they're dead, Gail," she sobbed. "They were both killed in a car crash. A terrible acci-dent. I'm so sorry."
Judy took Gail onto her lap and held her tight.
Michael spoke. "We're going to take care of you, Gail. We'll give you a good home."
Gail's wide eyes looked at him, not comprehending. "I want my Daddy!" she screamed.
Gail began to thrash about. Nothing would calm her. Michael called the doctor, who came over and gave Gail a sedative. He explained to Michael and Judy that because Gail had suffered a terrible shock and a grave loss, they should not expect her to understand or remember what had happened. They should be prepared for anything. And under no circumstances was Gail to go to the funeral.
Gail had no memory of the long drive to her aunt and uncle's house. She slept most of the day, and when she awoke she refused to eat. She went to bed for the night, clutching a doll she hadn't slept with in years.
Over the next few days, Gail went* rom one extreme to the other. At times she would pretend nothing had happened, even creating imaginary conversations with her parents. At other times she would sit, motionless, staring up at the ceiling. At night she would clutch her doll.
Gail seemed oblivious to her surroundings and relatives. Judy and Michael had not yet succeeded in tearing her out of her dreams, when Gail suddenly seemed to wake up on her own. It was at breakfast on the eighth day since the accident. "Please pass the juice," Gail asked.
"Shall I pour it for you, Gail?" her aunt asked.
"Yes, please," she answered.
Judy poured her some juice.
"Thank you, Aunt Judy," Gail said.
Judy eyed her niece. Gail hadn't referred to her by name since the morning they appeared in her bedroom to tell her about her parents. Now Judy wondered if Gail was playing a new game.
"You're welcome, Gail." she said.
"Where's Uncle Michael?" Gail asked.
"He went to work today. He'll be home later."
"How was the funeral?" Gail asked simply.
Judy spilled her coffee, but made no move to clean it up.
"Aren't you going to get a napkin to clean it up, Aunt Judy?"
Without answering, Judy tore a paper towel from the roll and slowly wiped up the mess. Her mind was churning, and she didn't know what to do or say. She was hoping that the phone would ring, or the doorbell, or for any other distraction so that she would not have to answer her niece. She was terrified she'd say the wrong thing and do further damage.
"It's okay, Aunt Judy," Gail said. "I understand. You're still upset about Daddy being killed. We'll talk later." She skipped out of the room.
Dazed, Judy called Michael at work and told him about the conversation at breakfast. Michael assured her that Gail was clearly beginning to understand that her parents were dead. She was probably parroting back some of the pat phrases she had been hearing over the past week. Though they could expect ups and downs, the shock had worn off and Gail could make a start at going on with life. They decided that Gail would soon have to go to school in Larchmont and make some new friends.
Gail joined the second grade in Lincoln Elementary School at the end of September. She was reluctant to make any friends. Her teacher tried to bring Gail out of her shell, and paired her up with different children, but Gail rebuffed all friendly overtures by classmates and teacher alike.
After several weeks, Gail's teacher called the Bermans to school to meet with her.
Mrs. Powers surveyed the couple sitting across from her. Mr. Berman was tall and athletic-looking, with broad shoulders, short jet-black hair, and sparkling blue eyes. Mrs. Berman seemed more subdued, her wavy, brown hair framing a gentle face with soft, brown eyes.
"Gail doesn't seem very happy here," Mrs. Powers began.
Michael sat with his long legs crossed and arms folded. He said confidently, "I thought she was doing quite well. She reads all the time, quite well for her age, I think."
"Yes," Mrs. Powers agreed, "Gail reads well. And she writes well, and she's a whiz at math. She's very bright, in fact. She questions everything. Gail is the one who must know exactly which type of ant lives in our ant farm, and exactly how a seed turns into a plant. She always has questions. 'Why do worms come out after it's been raining? Why do birds fly? Why do we smile when we're happy and cry tears when we're sad? Why is the sky blue? 'Yes, if there's a reason to be found, Gail will search for it. But I'm talking about her emotional well-being." She paused. "Gail has no friends here."
Judy wound some hair around her finger. "Why do you suppose that is?" she asked softly.
Michael ignored the question. Of course she has no friends. She just moved here. She'll make friends."
Mrs. Powers looked at him. "She doesn't want to make friends. She's trying very hard to make sure she doesn't make any friends."
No one said anything for a few minutes. Mrs. Powers continued, "I believe Gail is afraid to get close to anyone, including me."
"Well, not every student likes her teacher," Michael said. "No offense, of course."
Mrs. Powers smiled. "None taken. Tell me, what is your relationship with Gail?"
Michael uncrossed his legs and leaned forward. "I'm not sure what business it is of yours, Mrs. Powers."
Mrs. Powers was taken aback by his defensiveness. "Well, when a child is unhappy, I like to get to the root of the problem. Not because I'm nosy, Mr. Berman, but because I care."
"What are you insinuating?'" Michael demanded.
She tried to placate him. "I'm insinuating nothing, Mr. Berman. Nothing at all. I'm just wondering to whom Gail is turning with all her pent-up emotions. It's not to me, I assure you. I just thought that perhaps if she was confiding in you, you might know if there is a particular problem with school, or if this is a reaction to her parents' death."
An oppressive silence filled the room. "Tell me," Mrs. Powers said, "what has become of all of the Roths' things?"
"Things?" Mrs. Berman put in.
"You know," Mrs. Powers said, "their personal belongings. Furniture, photographs, clothing, that sort of thing."
"We packed away most of it," Michael answered. "We have no use or place for their paraphernalia. We have a smaller house than they do. Did."
Suddenly Mrs. Powers understood: Mr. Berman was jealous. Jealous of his dead brother-in-law.
"Mr. Berman, Gail has suffered a great loss."
"We all have." The comment came from Judy.
Mrs. Powers looked at her. "Yes. You have both suffered a loss as well. It is never easy to lose a loved one. Yet your world has not fallen apart. Your life has not changed drastically. You have each other," she included them both with her outstretched arms, "and you have the experience and tools of adults to cope with that loss. Gail is a young child. She has nothing, no remnant of her former life. Nothing of her past to hold on to. Perhaps it might help her simply to have some of her parents' belongings around."
Michael was indignant. "What do you call us?" he demanded. "We are her family. We never had any children of our own, and we gladly accepted Gail into our home."
Yes, thought Mrs. Powers. Into your home, but not into your hearts.
Back home, Michael assured his wife that Gail was just going through a phase, and that time would heal all her wounds. After all, at home Gail was an angel. She was never disobedient. In fact, she went out of her way to be pleasant and thoughtful, especially to Michael. Sure, she cried at night. She was afraid to be left alone. But under the circumstances, that was normal. Yes, it was just a phase, Michael decided, and he was off to the tennis club.
Alone with her thoughts, Judy replayed the talk with Mrs. Powers over and over in her mind. She wasn't so sure that Gail would heal eventually; it sounded a little too magical. But she did not voice her concern to Michael. After all, Gail was her brother's child, not his, and there had been some rivalry between Michael and Roger since the day they met.
Roger. Judy sighed. Roger had always been so happy and content. She supposed it was because he had real principles, and stuck to them, no matter what. He had a quiet strength which people tended not to question. Even his wife gave in to him on all the important issues, and Sarah was not so easy to get along with.
Again Judy thought back to what Mrs. Powers said. It was true that Gail had no visible or tangible reminders of her parents; nothing she could connect with. When they brought Gail to their house, Michael had insisted that they bring only Gail's things. He had said they would have room only for necessities. Judy went along with him, as she usually did, telling herself that it would be easier for Gail to start over if she wasn't constantly reminded of her parents. Now Judy realized that it had been a mistake. Gail needed time to mourn her parents before she would be able to get on with her life, a new life. Judy decided to bring a few things for Gail when she went back to Hollidan to prepare the house for sale.
Before her trip, Judy asked Gail what she might like from her old house.
"Oh please, can I come with you?" Gail begged.
Judy was completely unprepared for the request. "W-w-why would you want to come with me?" she stammered.
"I want to see my..." she stopped suddenly. "I want to see my old room," she finished.
Judy thought for a moment. "I guess it will be all right, Gail. Then you can pick out a few things for yourself to bring here."
"Thanks, Aunt Judy!" she shouted, and ran upstairs.
"Thanks, Aunt Judy!" she shouted, and ran upstairs.
Judy was packing a bag for their trip when Michael walked into the kitchen.
"Aren't you overdoing it a bit?" he asked.
"Overdoing it?" she replied.
Yes," he responded. "How much do you need to take with you? You'll only be gone for the day."
"Well," she said, "Gail might get hungry before we return, and..."
"Why are you taking Gail with you?" Michael interrupted.
"She has school today." He looked at his watch. "In fact, isn't she late already? Did she miss her bus?"
"Uh, yes, but..."
"Just drop her off on your way, then," Michael cut her off again. "There you go. 'Bye, now. Have a safe drive." And he was off to work before Judy could even begin to tell him that it was Gail's idea to go, and that she had already agreed to let her. As for having a safe drive, Judy planned on avoiding the highway. She couldn't bear to see the site of the crash where her brother and sister-in-law had been killed.
It's a lovely drive, Judy thought. She'd come this way once or twice before, when there was traffic on the highway, or when an accident had diverted drivers. Judy glanced over at Gail, who was staring silently out the window. Judy wondered what thoughts were churning inside that head of hers. If she were to believe Mrs. Powers, Gail was a clever girl with a lot of questions. Judy thought it funny that she and Michael had never seen that side of her. When her parents were alive, Judy had never really gotten to know Gail at all. Now she wondered if she was still a stranger to them. Was Gail afraid of them? Were they intimidating? True, Michael could be a bit overbearing but Judy saw herself as a sympathetic, understanding person. Why would Gail hold back from her?
Judy glanced at Gail once more, then gave her attention to the road. Gail felt Judy's eyes on her. She stared back at her au«t wordlessly, then returned her gaze to the scenery that sped by.
They soon arrived at Gail's old house. Together, Judy and |^" Gail entered the house through the front door. They surveyed the living room. Nothing had changed. To Judy it seemed that her brother had gone on vacation and would be back shortly. Gail's eyes darted about as she walked slowly upstairs to her room. Judy began to follow her, but held back. She needs some time alone, she decided.
Judy began to sort boxes and clean up. She became so engrossed in her task that she lost track of time and forgot that Gail was upstairs alone. She climbed the stairs and knocked softly on Gail's door. There was no answer. Slowly Judy opened the door and peeked behind it into Gail's room. She saw that Gail must have been in there, for the window was open, but she must now be elsewhere. Judy looked around. The room seemed bare and unlived in. To her left, an empty bookcase sat on top of a desk. Opposite the door, a double dresser was collecting dust underneath the window that overlooked the backyard. To her right were Gail's bed and the door leading to the bathroom. Judy peeked inside. She found herself facing another door, slightly ajar, which led to the master bedroom. Judy stopped. She heard a voice through the door, and realized it must be Gail's.
"...and I've been very good, just like I promised. So you can come out now, 'cause Mommy has to kiss me goodnight, and Daddy promised to bring me something. And I won't make Mommy mad anymore, okay? I'm going to close my eyes now, and when I open them, you can come out, okay? Here I go. One, two, three...."
Judy felt sick. She stood in the bathroom, afraid to move. Gail thought her parents were hiding from her. Why? Because she made Mommy mad? Was that why Gail was always so good with her and Michael? Was she afraid they'd leave too? Judy's thoughts were interrupted by loud sobs.
Gail had thrown herself onto her parents' bed, and was crying uncontrollably. Judy entered the room and gently placed her hand on Gail's head. After several minutes, Gail sobbed, "They're not coming back!"
Judy thought her heart would burst. "No, honey, they're not. Mommy and Daddy aren't coming back. They can't. But they still love you." She paused. "You didn't make them die,
Gail sputtered, "But...but...but sometimes when Mommy was mad she would leave the house and slam the door."
Judy took Gail onto her lap. She looked into her deep brown eyes. "Listen, honey. Mommy got angry sometimes. But she didn't die because she was angry. It was an accident. She was coming to the party. It was an accident," she repeated.
"Well, they should have let me come to the party, Aunt Judy. I could have made sure they didn't crash!" she shouted.
Judy could not explain to her young niece that if she had gone, she, too, would be dead.
"I know this is hard to accept, Gail. But you have to believe that Mommy and Daddy want you to be happy. Uncle Michael and I love you as if you were our own." Gail's expression showed confusion.
"We won't take Mommy and Daddy's place, and you will never forget them. But we can still be a family."
Gail began to cry again. She buried her head in Judy's shoulder.
A tear escaped from Judy's eyes as she whispered, "I'll tell you a secret, Gail. I've always wanted a child, a little girl to love. Will you be my little girl?"
THE DRIVE HOME BORE no resemblance to the drive to Hollidan. Judy was relieved that Gail finally seemed to be opening up to her. She could hardly wait to tell Michael about this breakthrough. Gail had much to say and even more to ask. After explaining her reasons for choosing some of her parents' belongings over others, she began to question the need to tnove, to change schools, to leave so many things behind. Judy patiently answered all of her questions, surprising herself with how comfortable she felt talking to Gail. She didn't feel, as she often did, that she had to contemplate each thought before she allowed it to escape her lips. She was quite at ease, until Gail asked a question that caught her off guard.
"Why can't I go to Hebrew School?" Nonplussed, Judy replied, "Why do you ask?" Gail wrinkled her freckled nose and replied, "I used to go to Hebrew School. Why can't I still go?" Judy answered, "It's too far, honey." "So I'll go only on Sundays, then."
"It's still too far," Judy repeated. Besides, she thought, Michael would never allow it.
Gail was quiet for a few minutes. "Aunt Judy," she said. "Do you believe in God?"
Judy didn't know what to say. How could she say she believed in a God who let such terrible things happen? The God Judy had heard about when she was a girl was supposed to be good and benevolent and kind. Did He exist? Was there really a heaven where her brother and sister-in-law now resided? Roger had believed in God, and his convictions gave him inner peace; he had sent his daughter to Hebrew School to learn about being Jewish. Could she take that opportunity away from Gail? Could she destroy a belief which might help her through this difficult adjustment? Should she voice her uncertainty, or should she pretend to believe in God for Gail's sake?
Unsure of what to do, she finally said, "Gail, I'm not really sure about God. I...I just don't know." "Oh," Gail replied casually.
Gail let the matter rest, and Judy was relieved, although feeling somewhat guilty.
Back home, they unloaded the car and deposited the boxes on the living room floor. They rested a while, and then set about making dinner. Judy prepared the chicken while Gail peeled and washed vegetables. They tossed everything into a pot and started to make a salad, when Michael came home.
"Come and get it!" he yelled through the house. Judy came out of the kitchen to greet her husband. "Hi, Michael. Get what?" Judy asked as she put Michael's briefcase in the closet.
Michael pointed to the table. "Pizza!" he said. "Let's eat it while it's still hot."
Gail came in from the kitchen. Michael told her, "Go get some plates."
Obediently, Gail spun around and went back to the kitchen. "Pizza?" Judy said. "You didn't say you were bringing home pizza."
"Well, I was just in the mood," Michael replied.
"But we made dinner," Judy said.
"Who's 'we'?" Michael joked. "Are you teaching Gail how to cook?"
"Well," Judy answered, "we had some extra time after we got home, and..."
Michael's expression changed. He interrupted his wife, "Got home? From where? Wasn't Gail in school today?"
Judy flushed. "No, she wasn't. She came with me to Holli-dan."
"I thought I told you that she shouldn't go with you," Michael said coldly.
"Please calm down, Michael. You left this morning before I could explain. I had already told Gail that she should come, and she was all excited about it, and..."
Michael didn't let her finish. "I said she shouldn't go," Michael repeated, "so she shouldn't have gone."
"But she wanted to pick out a few things to bring here. You know, some of her parents' stuff. Like Mrs. Powers said."
Immediately Judy regretted the remark. Michael's face contorted with anger.
"'Like Mrs. Powers said!'" he exploded. "Do you think she knows more about children than I do? We have all the things that Gail could ever need. What could she possibly have brought that I can't provide?"
"Memories," Judy answered quietly.
Michael raised an eyebrow.
Cautiously, Judy continued, "You can't provide her with a different past. Wanting to hold on to a few oddments doesn't mean she's ungrateful or that you're a bad provider."
"Hmpf," Michael grunted noncommittally, and stormed upstairs.
Judy turned to go back to the kitchen and saw Gail standing by the kitchen door, afraid to move. Judy smiled weakly.
Gail's eyes filled with tears as she watched her uncle retreat. Judy went to Gail and gently took the plates from her hands.
"I...I brought the plates like Uncle Michael said," Gail whispered.
"I see. Thank you," Judy replied. She followed Gail's eyes to the stairs. She wondered-how much Gail had heard.
"Why is Uncle Michael mad? What did I do wrong?" Judy tilted her head as if she was fitting together another piece of the puzzle that was Gail. Did Gail always think she was the cause of other people's anger? That fit in with what Gail had said in her parents' bedroom.
"You didn't do anything wrong," Judy answered. "Uncle Michael is angry because I took you with me to Hollidan today." Gail stammered, "B-but I'm the one who..." "No, Gail," Judy interrupted. "I'm the one who decided it was okay for you to come, and if Uncle Michael is angry about it, he's angry at me. Only me. Okay?" Uncertain, Gail nodded.
"Don't worry," Judy went on. "I'll explain to Uncle Michael why you came, and I'm sure he'll understand. No problem. I'm sure he'll understand."
As Judy assured Gail, she began to wonder which one of them she was trying to convince. She gave Gail dinner and put her to bed. The pizza was left on the table, untouched.
When Judy went upstairs, Michael was nowhere to be seen. The closet was slightly ajar, and when she went to close it, Judy discovered that Michael's tennis bag was gone, along with his racket. She supposed he had slipped out while she was putting Gail to bed. Judy was relieved. She had not been looking forward to rehashing their argument. She knew she'd have to justify her reasons to Michael's satisfaction, and that was never easy.
The next morning, Judy once again steeled herself for an argument with Michael. But by the time she made breakfast, Michael was running out the door, saying something about an urgent appointment, and that evening after dinner he ran off to the tennis club. By the third day, when Michael hurried to meet a client early in the morning, Judy began to suspect that Michael was avoiding her and the subject of Gail. She was baffled by his reluctance to talk to her, since he usually had plenty to say.
Judy made herself a cup of coffee and sat down. She was unsure of what to do. It was just as unusual for Michael to avoid disagreement as it was for Judy to seek challenge. Questions whirled in her mind. Was Michael avoiding her? Should she confront him, or let him handle things his way? What was compelling her to follow this through? What had changed between them? And what did it portend?
Judy sipped her coffee. It was cold. She went to the sink and poured it down the drain. Leaving her cup in the sink, she decided that the bitter taste in her mouth was not from the coffee.
The phone rang. It was Gail, calling from school.
"What's the matter, Gail? Is everything all right? Are you sick?"
"I'm fine, Aunt Judy," Gail answered cheerfully. "My teacher said we have to have a partner, and Stacey's brother has a big stamp collection, but my teacher said I have to call you and get permission."
"Permission?" Judy asked. "Slow down, honey. What do you need permission for?" -
Gail explained, "Stacey's brother has a big stamp collection, and she said I could come to her house if I wanted to, and we could do it there, but my teacher said I need permission."
Judy began to understand. "You want to go to Stacey's house because she has a stamp collection. Is this for a project or something?"
"A game. Can I go?" Gail asked.
Judy said, "When do you want to go?"
Exasperated, Gail said, "Today! Please can I go?"
Judy had never heard Gail so insistent. She fought back an urge to tell her she had to check with Uncle Michael first. "All right, Gail. You can go. But you'll have to be home by dinnertime."
Gail answered, "Stacey's mother said I should stay for dinner. I'll call you later, okay?"
"Okay, honey. Have fun!"
"Thanks, Aunt Judy. 'Bye!"
Judy was thrilled. Gail sounded so excited to have been invited over to Stacey's house. Then it dawned on Judy that she and Michael would have some time to talk; in fact, they would have to talk.
Judy made sure to have dinner ready when Michael arrived home. She set the table and waited.
Michael apologized for being late as he walked into the house. As they sat down to eat, Michael noticed that Gail was missing. "Hey, where's Gail?" he wanted to know.
"I was waiting for you to ask!" Judy said. "She was invited over to a friend's house. Can you believe it? I think she's finally made a friend!"
Michael's fork hovered over his salad. "It's a school night. She can't go anywhere on a school night."
"But Michael, she wanted to work on something together with another girl, a game or something for school. What's the big deal?"
"The big deal," Michael snapped, "is that children do not go out on school nights. Period."
Judy said nothing. She watched Michael finish his salad. Wordlessly, she got up and removed the plates. Alone in the kitchen, tears sprang to her eyes as she spooned rice into a serving bowl. She made a few trips back and forth to the dining room and then sat down again.
"Smells terrific," Michael commented. He was as calm as ever.
"Thanks," Judy murmured.
"You'll have to go get Gail right after dinner," Michael decreed. "That's all there is to it." Then, changing the subject, he said, "Listen, you've got to hear what Dan said today. The big boss was in a good mood for a change, and..."
Michael stopped cold. His eyes rounded in surprise. His wife never interrupted him.
"That's not all there is to it," Judy said, striving to keep her voice steady. "Please, Michael. This is the first time anyone has invited Gail over for anything! I thought it would be good for her to go. You should have heard her when she called. She was so excited! What's the problem with that?"
"The problem," Michael argued, "is that children do not go out on school nights. You shouldn't have told Gail it was okay without checking with me first."
"Why do I always have to check with you before 1 make a decision?" Judy demanded. She took a deep breath. They never fought like this. "Michael," she said more calmly, "1 am not a child. I made a decision and I'd like to stick with it."
"Where I come from," Michael commented, "children do not go out on school nights."
"Where you come from?" Judy asked, astonished. "You come from a home with parents! A father and a mother! Gail's parents were torn away from her not too long ago. You can't possibly compare your situation to hers. Normal rules don't always have to apply to Gail."
Michael stirred the ice in his glass with his finger, contemplating his wife's words. *
Judy saw that she was beginning to get through to her husband. "Gail needs a little more flexibility than other kids. She needs more love and understanding."
"Gail knows I love her," Michael stated.
"Yes," Judy replied. "She knows. But she's also a little intimidated by you."
Michael shrugged his shoulders. "That's good," he said. "She needs to listen to authority, especially since her parents are dead."
Judy winced. "Of course she does," she agreed. "But there needs to be a balance between fear and love. If she's so afraid of you, she'll never be comfortable with you. No extreme is good, Michael. Let's find a happy medium, a middle of the road."
"Middle of the road," Michael repeated.
"Yes. Something we can all live with. Rules that are clear-cut but not too restrictive," Judy suggested. "Like, if you feel so strongly about not going out on school nights, maybe there are exceptions when it would be okay. You know, once in a while."
"Once in a while," Michael repeated, and gave his attention to his dinner.
Michael said nothing else, and Judy was afraid to press further.
Judy sighed. It was so hard to get Michael to compromise. She forced herself to smile and asked, "So, what did Dan say?"
Michael eagerly plunged into his story.
Gail called soon afterwards and Judy went to pick her up from Stacey's house. Bubbling with excitement, Gail showed her aunt the game they had made together, and described the intricate rules involved in playing. Judy thought Gail sounded happy in a way she hadn't been since her parents died. She put her niece to bed, thinking that perhaps Gail had begun to reclaim some of her childlike innocence.
Judy climbed into her own bed and turned on a small lamp. She pondered her relationship with her husband. They'd met in college. She was a sophomore, he a senior. They'd married right after Michael's graduation. Judy knew that Michael tended to be a little domineering, but she had wanted so badly to be loved and protected. She knew she could always rely on Michael to take care of things for her. He handled all the financial burdens and managed the bills and the house. Occasionally he would surprise her with gifts. Yes, she had always felt secure and taken care of with Michael.
They didn't argue often. Once in a while, Michael would go too far and really quash Judy's ego, and it would take a few days of sulking to get Michael to realize she'd been hurt. Judy smiled at the realization. She'd certainly changed since Gail had come to live with them. Usually when Michael grew angry, she backed down or tried to placate him. But when he blew up earlier, she held her ground.
Judy was amazed as she realized that not only had she stood up to Michael, but he had actually listened to her. Perhaps Michael was not as dictatorial as she had thought. Perhaps if she began to express her opinions and tried to be more honest with him about her feelings, she wouldn't have to give in all the time.
Judy reached over and turned off the lamp. How about that, she thought to herself. I'm raising a child, and I'm the one who's growing up.
Jewish children's books-middle grades
Jewish children's books-young teen books
Jewish teen books