Laura O’Malley is the most surprising congregant in the Tuesday morning minyan at B’nai Shalom—Children of Peace. For one thing, she’s still in college, and a half or a third the age of other regulars. For another, well, is she Jewish at all? Red-blond hair, blue eyes, she looks like an O’Malley. Turns out, while her mother was born Jewish, the household was neither Jewish nor Christian. Laura grew up in a family not of atheists or even agnostics, but simply of secularists, materialists, for whom the question of God did not exist.
Or was other people’s question. They were too polite to say so to friends, but they wondered at the simpletons who believe ridiculous things.
They believe in truth. The real world. Laura has always agreed.
This is one of the only ways Laura’s mother and father do agree. Another is about how unfair the other spouse is. And another is about Laura’s schooling.
Laura is the first in her family to go to college, as she was the first to go to a good prep school. Both on scholarship. Almost full scholarship at Andover, a music scholarship and an “attractive” financial package at Boston University. It’s not enough; she’s taken out a loan, but it’s only a small loan. Her parents won’t help. If she studied nursing, as Laura’s mother did, they might feel it worthwhile to take out a loan. But Laura wants to study music, art, and literature. She wants to be a singer.
Laura’s father manages one of a chain of stores selling outdoor clothing. He’s not rich, but he’s proud of what he’s done with himself. His father worked in a factory. He wants their only child to be an even bigger success. “A singer?” he says—says again and again. “You think we’ll pay for you to sing better? You sing just fine.”
This semester, spring semester, she’ll work part time for a home-care agency—paid ultimately by the Com-monwealth of Massachusetts—drive to Newton, pick up an old, sickly woman, victim of a stroke that cleaved her in two, and drive her in the woman’s own wheelchair-accessible van to a synagogue in Brookline for Saturday-morning services. “Well,” Laura’s mother said. “It’s a good thing, sweetie. It’s real, you know what I mean? All your father cares about is the money. But you’re doing good for somebody. Better than doing bad for somebody—grilling burgers at that dreadful fast-food place.” Which is what Laura did between her first and second years of college, then first semester this year, until she became totally nauseated by the stink of cooked cow.
Before she starts working for Mrs. Kahn, she imagines a Sweet Old Lady, her hands a little shaky, poor old lady, a widow, religious, very dear. She’s prepared to love her. Laura’s template is her own grandmother, her mother’s mother, who died when Laura was eleven. Laura loved Binnie completely, Binnie she called her, she massaged Binnie’s feet and legs to help the circulation, listened to stories about her grandmother’s own grandmother. It was wonderful to go back and back through stories into the past, into the 19th century, into immigration from Poland, hardship in Chicago. Binnie was a storyteller.
But Mrs. Kahn is not, it turns out, at all like Binnie. Not at all. Anything but.
It’s the first Saturday morning; Laura drives up to a small ranch built in the 1950s. A van sits in the driveway. House with vinyl siding, garage a storage room, breezeway between. A house in good condition. Through the glass upper half of the door Laura sees the old lady sitting high, queenly, in her wheel-chair—one side paralyzed from the stroke—confronting the kitchen door. Laura knocks and, past tied-back curtains, sees a bulldog face, mouth twisted down at one corner, a hand waving her in with a quick snap! snap!—as if the woman were splashing water on herself.
“Well it’s about time, damnit!”
“Is there a misunderstanding? Actually, Mrs. Kahn, I’m here fifteen minutes early.”
“Who told you that? I thought you’d never get here. You think it’s easy to be rolled into shul and have everyone look at the poor old lady? Uch!”
“Are you saying you’d like me here earlier? I can do that.”
“Not so much earlier. No. Not all that much. And disturb my morning?”
Laura considers turning around and walking out. That would give her such instant pleasure! But she needs the money. And Mrs. Kahn’s regular home aide has gone shopping, and suppose Mrs. Kahn were to be left for hours on her own. And then Laura sees, in her mind’s eye, Binnie. So be cool. Think of Mrs. Kahn as slightly senile.
But the fact is, she seems anything but senile. Maybe a little crazy, but sharp. Okay, then. Think of her as crazy. Funny old grump. Not even that old. Bone-skinny but with hips outsized, stuffing the seat of the wheelchair. And a belly that seems outsized on a skinny woman, as if she were pregnant. Laura doesn’t want to look closely.
Who knows what a stroke can do? Mrs. Kahn sounds a little drunk. She’s not drunk—it’s just the stroke. Poor old lady. But Laura senses that if she capitulates, poor old lady or not, and lets Mrs. Kahn cow her, she’ll always be under her thumb, swallow-ing one nasty comment after the other until, finally, she explodes and quits. So in the gentlest voice she can muster, she says: “Mrs. Kahn, let me put it this way. Please listen to me. Maybe you can get away with spewing complaints onto your family…”
“What are you saying to me? What are you saying?”
“You heard me perfectly. Has your stroke affected your hearing?”
“What family? Family! Nobody comes to see me.”
“I wonder why. Hmm. Let’s get this straight. I don’t lie. I tell the truth. And here’s the truth. You treat me with respect, I’ll treat you with respect. A deal?”
Silence. Well, Laura isn’t going to say another thing. She isn’t going to be sucked into a bor-ing script. She knows all about those scripts from life in her own family. She knows better than to play a role. And the woman is in pain, Mrs. Kahn. She can stand and walk with a cane; holding on to chairs or the wall or a walker, she can get herself to the bathroom or even, slowly, into the kitchen to take yogurt from the fridge, but that’s about it. Laura wants to give her the benefit of the doubt. Who knows what pain and incapacity can do to a person? And her husband dead. Who knows? Still, she won’t be railroaded into submission. And she won’t pretend.
She looks around the kitchen at the old fridge, the old cabinets. Someone’s kept everything clean and neat. It’s like an art installation: a 1950s kitchen, pale turquoise cabinets, white counters. The home aide keeps things nice.
Finally Mrs. Kahn speaks. “Well.” She looks Laura over. “At least you’re prettier than my last one. Look at that Irish red hair of yours. My driver. Pusher. Helper. Miss What’s-her-name Helper had stringy hair and pimples. She wasn’t even American. She spoke—God knows—I don’t know what she spoke. I could hardly understand her.” She peers at Laura. “And my home aide, this Janice creature, she has nothing to say to me. I might as well have a robot.” She looks Laura over. “I do like your reddish hair. Laura O’Malley. You’re one very pretty shiksa.”
Laura ignores this. “Will you need a sweater?”
“You’ve got a peaches-and-cream complexion. Did you ever hear of Deanna Durbin? No, I’m sure not, I’m sure not.”
“Her complexion?” Laura laughs. “Who cares! It’s her voice I wish I had. Hollywood made her into a sweetie pie, but have you heard her sing ‘Nessa Dorma’ from Turandot?” She laughs. “Did you ever hear of Puccini’s Turandot? No,” she parodies, “I’m sure not, I’m sure not.”
“Well, aren’t you spiteful! You are being paid, my dear.”
“Mrs. Kahn—they can’t pay me enough to take abuse from you. Or to smooth over what you say. Now. You want to go to synagogue? I thought you didn’t want to be late.”
“Late doesn’t matter all that much. It’s not like church. You go to church? When I get there, I get there. You’re a bit feisty, aren’t you?”
“And you’re a bit rude, aren’t you? I told you—I’m willing to drop my act if you will please drop yours. Now, can I get you a sweater?”
“You—you’re not dressed for synagogue. You’re dressed like—a hippie.”
Well, in a way Laura can see what she means. She’s wearing tight jeans and a pretty flowered blouse showing cleavage and over one breast the small tattoo of a butterfly. She’d seen her role as a worker, not a participant. “You’d like me to dress up? I will next time.”
“I’ll tell you what. My daughter has put on pounds over the years. She’s not fat—but she’s thick. Well. She’s going on fifty-five. She left some lovely, simple, nice clothes here. Much nicer than that skimpy blouse you’re wearing. You’ll do me a favor you try something on.”
Again Laura has a choice: She can tell the old lady I dress as I dress, or thank her and push the wheelchair, as Mrs. Kahn helps with one hand, to roll to the guest room. Mrs. Kahn points to a pretty flowered silk blouse hanging in the closet—“You like that one, Miss Rude?” And then points to a hand-embroidered soft wool jacket—“A bit overkill with the jeans but not impossible. I know that these days everyone wears jeans. And you, you have some figure! My goodness.”
“Very nice things. Beautiful. Really? Thank you. Doesn’t your daughter have children?”
“Boys. Young men. You can change right here. I’ll wait outside.” She rolls away, stops at the door. “Tell me. You’ll sit by me at services?”
“Of course I’ll sit by you.”
“I must warn you. You can expect to be bored to death in synagogue.”
Laura changes and stares at herself in the mirror over the dresser. It’s as if she’s become somebody else. She’d never have bought these clothes—never have been able to afford them. Look at the labels! They don’t go with this simple house. But she likes this romantic person she’s become. She collects her hair in her hands and twisting it into a kind of chignon, she gives herself a seductive glance over her shoulder. Well, look at me! What would her mother say?
“Well, don’t you look nice!” Mrs. Kahn, rolling in, inspects her. “Not at all like my daughter I must say. You have, as they used to say, rather a noble carriage. But now it’s time.”
Laura rolls the wheelchair down the ramp to the driveway.
“My children want me to have an electric wheelchair. I absolutely refuse,” she says. “They’re ugly machines. And dangerous.”
Yet Mrs. Kahn’s van has a wheelchair-accessible power lift to raise the chair to the floor of the van. This is electric, too, Laura notes.
Mrs. Kahn points. “Have you used one of those? You have to be very careful.”
“I’ve been taught by my supervisor.” Laura locks the chair into place and straps Mrs. Kahn to the chair. “You have a very nice house,” she says, trying to erase and start over.
“You won’t drive too fast, will you? That’s all I need—an accident.”
“We’ll go as slow as you want. So…how long have you lived in your house?”
“Since I was a young wife. Almost fifty years ago. My husband came to teach. You, what’s-your-name—Laura? You probably can’t believe I was ever a young wife.”
“Or that I’ll ever be your age? I know what you mean. But I do believe it. I mean I get it, I feel it, the way time passes. I had a grandmother I loved dearly, Mrs. Kahn.”
“She wasn’t like me, I’ll wager.”
“No, that’s a fact.”
Services have begun when they get to synagogue. Mrs. Kahn tilts back her head and whispers, “A stroll, miss. A stroll, gracious, decorous. I want you to think of me—now you listen—as a duchess being carried down the aisle in a sedan chair.”
“You got it, Duchess.”
A middle-aged man with a grand smile comes up the aisle to help; he removes a chair from the end of a row so Laura can replace it with the wheelchair, and asks, “How are you, Doris?”
“Oh, Sam,” she says, “how should I be?”
“I’m Sam Schulman,” he says to Laura.
“Sam is the gabbai. He takes charge during Torah service.”
“Would you like an aliyah?” Sam asks Mrs. Kahn. “Laura can stand at the Torah in your place, Doris.”
“No she certainly cannot. My goodness. She’s not even Jewish.”
“I’m half Jewish,” Laura says. “My mother is Jewish.”
“Half!” Mrs. Kahn snorts.
“There. You see?” Sam says, laughing. “If you like, the Jewish half of Laura can make the blessing. Kidding, dear. Kidding. Or you can sit where you are, and I can make the blessing for you, Doris. With you. Okay?”
“No thank you, Sam. But I appreciate.”
Sam kisses her cheek and goes back to the bimah.
“Bored to absolute death,” the Duchess whispers with strange delight. “You’ll see.”
And that first Saturday morning Laura is bored. And weighed down, holding for Mrs. Kahn the large-print edition of the prayer book. A heavy tome, the weight of two ordinary hardcover prayer books. And what does any of it mean? The Hebrew—the alphabet is just a blur of squiggles to her—and the transliteration is meaningless sound. And the translations? Lofty abstrac-tions of praise. How can anyone believe a word? Praise, praise; gratitude, gratitude. She thinks of prayer as asking some God beyond this world—a God impossible to believe real—for help, and she turns to Mrs. Kahn. “Aren’t there supposed to be any, you know, real prayers? Like making requests of God?”
The Duchess, amused, whispers in her slightly drunken mumble, “Not on Shabbat, my dear, no asking on Shabbat. You see, it’s supposed to be so beautiful, Shabbos, Shabbat, that we’re supposed to just be grateful. We’re given a second soul, a Shabbat soul. We aren’t sup-posed to want to make changes in the world. Now, isn’t that dumb! What a joke. I’m supposed to be grateful for what?—my stroke? How delightful.” She leans over and whispers, “My husband, Larry, and I fought like cats and dogs about this.”
But still she wants to be at synagogue.
The one streak of energy, of passion, for Laura is the music. At times the melodies aren’t especially Jewish. Ordinary Western music. But then there’s a strange brew that sounds ancient, modal, dark, and brings tears to her eyes, whatever the words mean. Later, because Laura is a singer, the music plays over and over in her head.
“Will you please hold the book a little higher?” Mrs. Kahn sighs. “The doctor doesn’t want me to sit with my neck bent down.”
“Of course. Okay if I rest my elbow on the arm of the chair?”
Mrs. Kahn shrugs. She narrows her eyes, peers. “I see tears. Do I see tears?”
“It’s the music,” Laura whispers.
“Pretty peculiar for an Irish lass, wouldn’t you say?”
She doesn’t answer. And she doesn’t answer. Oh, boy! She could say, My mother was born a Rosen, I’m not exactly a shiksa. She could say, Oh, you nut case, Why do you want to make me into a spiteful brat? She says nothing. The Torah scroll, covered in velvet, is removed from the ark, and those who can stand, stand as it makes its way down the aisle. They kiss the fringes of their tallis or the corner of their prayer book or simply their fingers, and touch their kisses to the scroll in its robe and pointed silver caps. Mrs. Kahn reaches with her good arm, and Sam Schulman lowers the scroll to let her touch it without straining.
Laura holds her breath the moment when someone lifts the Torah scroll, unrolling it a little to show the text to the congregation. It’s like opera! She resists being moved; she’s moved. With that gesture of upholding the scroll, literal truth seems as irrelevant as it seems in opera. The whole story, Moses and the Torah in the desert, it all becomes, for the moment, real.
At the end of the service, Mrs. Kahn doesn’t want to join the congregation for lunch. “Just take me home. Who wants to be packed into a damned social hall? They’ll make a fuss over me because I was one of the founders of the community. One of the last of my generation.”
As she pushes the wheelchair up the aisle, Laura feels a tap on her shoulder. It’s Sam Schulman. “Thank you for bringing Doris. We’ve missed her lately. This will be a regular thing? You’ll be driving her?”
Laura steps back out of hearing. “If I can bear it,” Laura says in a whisper. “Is she always like this?”
“It was different when her husband was alive. Larry died about five years ago. She used to be a social worker. And then she had her stroke.”
“Well?” says Mrs. Kahn. “Are you just going to chatter and leave me sitting here?”
“Sorry,” Laura says. “Sorry.”
Spring in Boston. In a small, soundproof music room Laura is rehearsing, for performance by orchestra and chorus at B.U., the second and third sections of Handel’s Messiah, practicing the beautiful soprano solo, “I know that my Redeemer liveth.” Saturday mornings she takes Mrs. Kahn to services. Laura’s good with languages. At times, when she should be practicing piano or voice or study-ing counterpoint or writing an essay on Virginia Woolf, she sneaks in an hour’s study of Hebrew—first the alphabet, then prayer phrases she hears again and again. She listens to the prayers online, replays and sings along until she has them.
Partly, it’s out of spite that she studies. Well, not exactly spite—but to surprise Mrs. Kahn. Strange that she’s become important enough to Laura to care to surprise her. On the fourth Saturday morning, on the drive to synagogue, Laura chants for Mrs. Kahn the Shema—“Shema Yisrael, Adonai Eloheinu, Adonai Echad.”
“Why, you do have a marvelous voice,” says Mrs. K. “Would you like to know what those strange syllables mean?”
“I know what they mean,” says Laura, as if she were a little girl excited to show off for her Binnie. “‘Hear O Israel, the Lord our God, the Lord is one.’”
“My goodness. My goodness.”
Now comes Laura’s real surprise. She goes on to chant the next passage, forty-one words in music that’s been chanted for a millennium. More! No harder than learning an aria in Italian. And she translates, “And you shall love Adonai, your God…”
Easy to parrot words and music. It’s a trick—what opera singers who don’t know German or Italian learn to do. She even knows what the words mean. But hasn’t taken them inside.
Laura has taken out from the university library a book about Passover, almost upon them. She asks, “Doris?”—now it’s more often “Doris” than “Mrs. Kahn”—“Your son and your daughter, will they be coming to you for Passover? Or will you be with friends for a Seder?” She knows neither is likely; she thinks that’s very sad. Why pick at old scabs? What’s the good?
“Neither, my dear. I won’t be needing you to drive me. There was a time Larry led a Seder for a dozen people. And I—I hunted through the house for leavened food—for chametz. I brought out my Passover plates and boiled silverware. You don’t have to tell me about Passover. No longer. I have Janice buy a box of matzos. That’s all it comes down to.
“But,” she continues, “just after Passover is my husband’s yahrzeit, and for that, I will need you—in the middle of the week. Do you think you could take me very early one morning?”
“Yahrzeit? What’s that? It’s German, right?—year-time. Meaning what, Mrs. Kahn?”
“A yahrzeit? The day someone in your family died. We say Kaddish. We remember.”
They’re more comfortable together now. Laura doesn’t need to be constantly vigilant against attack. She’s been given, sweater by sweater, skirt by skirt, a wardrobe of beautiful clothes. Cashmere. Silk blouses. When she wears something from this wardrobe, out of the corner of her eye she sees Mrs. Kahn staring at her and almost smiling. No, it’s not exactly a smile—it’s better and odder—a loving stare not aware of itself. Loving! Can you imagine? Laura still remembers the bulldog face she saw that first day. Now she finds herself offered the role of Model Daughter, Replacement Daughter; and she accepts it, fingers crossed, knowing it’s conditional, temporary.
They’ve begun to have a sweet time, she and Mrs. Kahn, sitting over tea each week, a couple of gracious ladies, when they return from synagogue. Janice boils water for them and goes back to the television. Sometimes, after tea, Laura helps Doris into her bed, and, while it’s not her role—it’s Janice’s—she rubs Doris’s feet and legs with oil. Her feet are so dry and cold, her hands so cold. Her skin is etched, a topographical map. Laura rubs with oil and sings—sings quietly—songs from Rodgers and Hammerstein musicals.
“I do love the way you sing,” Mrs. Kahn says, and lies on the bed, eyes shut.
One day, when Doris is particularly alert and the day is clear and warm, Laura makes a suggestion. “You’ll probably grouch at me or laugh, Doris—”
“Would I ever do such a thing?”
“Never! Foolish me. But listen. Suppose I ride you around the neighborhood in the wheelchair. You think? The sidewalk’s in good shape, and it’s such a nice day. Sunny, no snow or ice.”
“The wheels will get filthy.”
“I’ll wash the wheels when we get back. You’ll enjoy it.”
“I see. As if the wheelchair were a stroller and I—well, I were, hmm, three years old?”
“Never mind. Just never mind then. You are something, Mrs. Kahn!”
“No, no, it’s a very sweet idea. Are you really up to the task? We’re heavy.”
“The wheelchair, a little. You, I wish were heavier. You’re so light. Let’s try. You don’t help push. You keep your fingers clean. I’ll push.”
“Do you know? I haven’t been out since the stroke—except by car. Or ambulance.”
And yet, when she bundles up Mrs. Kahn and they walk past one house, two, three, it turns out she knows stories of each family. A woman two doors down, gray hair tied up in a kerchief, is on her knees in her garden, weeding and loosening soil for spring. Doris points with her chin: “This one, this Mrs. Dalton, old lady now, she used to live across the street—in that house over there. Then she began a romance with the man from this house. This was—I don’t know—forty years ago. She went from a banker to a biologist. From her old garden to her new one. Both the men are dead and gone now.” Doris calls out, “Hello, Molly. Mrs. Dalton!”
“Oh, hello. It’s been such a long time. Lovely to see you.”
“And you! And you,” Doris says, waving and smiling. Then, when they pass the house, Doris whispers to Laura—“I know, I’m a terrible gossip. And see”—she points—“that next house? Their wild little boy crashed his sled into a tree, God forbid. In a coma for months. We all made meals for the family. But he came out of it, thank God. Now he’s a pediatrician.”
A valuable walk. Doris, too, may be coming out of a coma.
Laura, surrogate daughter, wonders about Mrs. Kahn’s own daughter. “Have you told Harriet about me?”
“Yes, yes, of course.”
“Have you told her you’ve been giving away her beautiful clothes?”
“Please, my dear. That is not your concern.” Doris gets back on her high horse. But then she considers and holds the forefinger of her usable hand in the air as she makes a point. “My daughter doesn’t call me. My daughter doesn’t visit. She doesn’t like me, Harriet, my daughter. It’s very peculiar.”
Not so peculiar to Laura, who knows what Doris Kahn can be like. She wishes she could help. But she knows better. She could never help her parents when she was growing up. She learned to play a role, keeping her growing self safe from them.
Suppose she calls Harriet. Suppose she finds her email address and writes. But without Mrs. Kahn’s approval? That would be a disaster.
One Saturday, when Laura is fixing tea for them, she hears a patch of conversation from the bedroom: It’s Mrs. Kahn and her daughter. Doris Kahn has put the phone on speaker so she can hear better. Laura listens to the war between mother
“Harriet, my dear? This…is a call…from the cemetery.” Mrs. Kahn’s voice is mournful, a rhythmic chant more than ordinary speech. Is it a joke? No, no joke.
“You mean, Mother,” sighs the distant voice—and Laura can feel the exasperation all the way from Denver—“you mean you’re alone and soon you’ll be in the cemetery and I don’t care. I never call—you mean that as far as I’m concerned, you might as well be dead? Oh, Mother. Please. That’s not funny. Not amusing. And not true. Really tiresome. I call you every single week. Which is more than I can say for my brother.”
“Joel! That’s a whole other story. I called because your father’s yahrzeit is this Tuesday. I wanted you to know. In case you care.”
“That must be by the Hebrew calendar. For the rest of us it’s a week from Friday.”
Laura has stopped preparing tea. She tries to catch the conversation.
The phone, old fashioned, heavy—the receiver slams down. When Laura brings in the tea, as she stirs in the honey she says, says casually, “Your daughter?”
Laura leans forward. “Doris, can I tell you something, please? I know from my own family. You’re making yourself a victim. I know I have no right. You can tell me to shut up. But I know from my own family. You’re pushing her away from you.”
“I don’t know what you’re talking about.”
“Oh, you do. You’re very smart.”
“Thank you for that. Never mind. Tell me, my dear. Can you take me to synagogue very early in the morning next Tuesday? Can you be here at seven? I’ve called Sam Schulman. He’ll make sure there’s a full minyan.”
“Sure. I’ll be here—before I go to class. Oh, Mrs. Kahn. Doris. Families,” Laura says, “families. They’re so crazy, aren’t they? They’re so, so sick. I’ll never live that way. I refuse to live that way. My mother and father hardly speak to each other. It’s always been like that. They’re each other’s hell, Mrs. Kahn.”
“See? See what? Oh, Doris, I’m really sorry—for you and your daughter. Tell me. Would you like me to talk to Harriet?”
“Of course not! What can a child like you do?” She heaves a great breath. “But thank you, I do thank you, really, for wanting to help.” Then, suddenly, “Laura! Do not put your cup down on the table!”
It’s at this moment that Laura really feels it. She doesn’t know why it hits her this way—the real suffering that Mrs. Kahn lives with. Not drama-queen self-pity, so false, even comic, but the real suffering of living one-sided, all the time in physical pain, all the time barely able to make herself a cup of tea. Audio books her companions, her husband gone, her son in Los Angeles, her daughter in Denver. She feels what it’s like, underneath the drama, to be Doris Kahn.
Later, when Janice is taking Doris’s blood pressure, Laura takes Doris’ black address book from an end table and finds Harriet’s number, Joel’s number—just in case she ever needs them. She fingers them as contacts into her own phone. She feels a little like a thief; what she’s stolen is inclusion in the family.
At the synagogue on a Tuesday morning, she wheels Doris past the large sanctuary to a small sanctuary with lots of spring light from clerestory windows, a wooden podium, a semicircle of chairs, an ark closed off with a blue velvet curtain—an ark holding, she guesses, a Torah scroll. And here’s that nice Sam Schulman in his full-body tallis—like a white Superman cape with blue trim and long fringes hanging down at the corners.
Mr. Schulman turns his head from the ark, smiles, stops chanting long enough to say, “We’ll have our ten, don’t worry, don’t worry”—for now there are, including Mrs. Kahn and Laura, just eight. And Laura guesses they won’t count an O’Malley in the minyan.
He goes back to his praying in a murmur. Laura takes a prayer book for Mrs. Kahn; a young mother, her baby in a sling, leans over and whispers, “the psalm on page 22.”
Now three more congregants come in, then another. There’s a full minyan. Plus Laura. Doris sighs and says, loud enough to be heard through the room, “Well. Finally.”
Laura, reaching over, squeezes her hand. “Shh.”
Doris stays seated while praying the Amidah—the standing prayer. But when it’s time for the Mourners’ Kaddish, she taps Laura for assistance and struggles to her feet. Before the ark, Sam, who’s turned to the minyan, says, “You don’t have to stand, Doris.” And she snaps back, “I know that.” Still, she stands. Holding the handles of the wheelchair, she reads in her slurred voice the Aramaic text—it’s spoken, not sung—held up for her by Laura. But she doesn’t need the text.
Laura does. She reads the English and sees it has nothing to do with death, with loss. It’s a glorification of God, while acknowledging that no praise of God is sufficient or can come close to expressing God’s holiness. And Laura, though sure she doesn’t believe in a “God,” finds herself moved, tears swelling in her eyes. So “truth” isn’t the point. Belief isn’t the point. The prayer asks for peace. And, mysteriously, the poetry, spoken, not sung, with its repetitions of rhythm, repetitions of rhyme, enacts peace, brings it into being, brings peace even to Laura, standing beside Mrs. Kahn, helping to support her. A different kind of truth. A strange peace, built on surrender, though surrender is the opposite of the way Laura has lived her life.
This is the moment. Something happens to Laura. She can’t say what. It’s as if she’s walked through the doors of a conservatory turned into tropical rain forest. Walking out of the small sanctuary, pushing the wheelchair, she finds her breath hot, as if the unwept tears were in her chest, in her mouth. Oh, she’s able to ask Doris about her husband and take in what Doris says. But beneath the conversation a change is taking place in her.
Doris is telling her about Larry. He taught legal studies at Tufts. He retired and two years later died of a massive heart attack. “We always knew he had to be careful about his heart. We were the same age; I wanted to go before him. I still want to go. You call this a life?”
Laura takes a long breath. “Doris? What about the prayer you just said?”
“What about it?”
“Don’t you believe it?”
“Don’t make me laugh. The Kaddish?—it’s for me, for my comfort.”
“Only for you?”
“You are a very odd girl. Tell me. Do you have friends your own age?”
Laura laughs. “Actually? No. Not many. Fellow musicians. I’m sorry I spoke,” Laura says. “It’s not my business.” She says nothing more. She pushes the wheelchair to the van.
Now, three months in, if they disagree, they say so. It’s all right. No longer quarrelsome, each permits the other to disagree. “What’s wrong with a good argument?” Doris asks. Laura is able to speak more freely with Doris than with her own parents.
Her parents live in Western Massachusetts, in Pittsfield, near the New York border. “This coming Saturday,” she tells Doris, “I have to go home to see them. It’s my mother’s birthday. Want me to find someone to take my place for the day?”
Doris, sitting over tea, shrugs. “No, no. I can miss a week at synagogue.” She holds up her teacup, delicate china, as if it were a glass of champagne. She toasts. “You, my dear, you’ve been very reliable, and very, very kind, very sweet. I so look forward to seeing you every week.”
Laura’s face grows hot. “It’s meant a lot to me. You’ve meant a lot to me.” They look into each other’s eyes—just for a moment they make a connection like deep friends. Who would have imagined?
The next Saturday, Laura calls her from the road. “Everything is coming into bloom, Doris. I’ll take pictures to show you, but they won’t show much. How are you feeling?”
“Tired this morning. Very. Just as well I didn’t go to services.”
“I’ll call you when I’m driving back tomorrow. Okay?”
Being home is always hard for Laura. It’s not lack of love. Separately, there’s kindness between her and each of her parents. But there’s a war on between her mother and her father. Doors slam. Voices hiss. She wants to protect them from each other. It’s hard. They quarrel about the jam, about how dark the toast should be. About bills, about real and imagined affronts. She mostly keeps her head down when the bullets start to fly. Each parent wants her agreement that what he or she sees is what’s real. The truth. What’s real, what’s true, is mutual contempt. She’ll be glad to be back in Boston.
Sunday. She pulls over just past the Turnpike ticket booth and calls Doris. It’s raining hard. With the wiper blades turned off, the car is clouded by water; she can barely see through the glass. Doris doesn’t answer. Has Janice taken her out for a walk? What—in the rain? Surely she isn’t being driven to a doctor’s appointment, not on a Sunday. She tells herself she’s being foolish. It’s her parents she’s really worrying about. And for them she can’t do a thing.
A half hour later she pulls into a service area and calls again. No answer. Now she’s worried, imagines Janice gone, Doris fallen to the floor. Should she call the agency that pays her? Instead, she scrolls her contacts, calls Harriet Mellon, and the phone is answered at once. “Harriet? I’m Laura O’Malley. I take care of your mother sometimes. I’m just a little worried about her, your mother isn’t answering her phone. I’m on the road. I’ll stop in when I get back. I’m sure she’s okay, I’m just a little worried.”
And Harriet says: “She’s not okay. I’m at the airport. I can’t talk. We’re boarding. My mother has had a heart attack. She’s at Mass General.”
Laura drives by on a spring evening after her classes. The house is closed up; a contractor will prepare it for sale. The van is gone. She turns off the engine and stares at the house, imagining that it’s 1965, and a young faculty member and his wife are moving in with a baby. That baby who would become Joel.
Harriet was with her mother in the hospital when the aneurysm burst. Joel flew in from Seattle. Harriet’s husband and sons couldn’t come, Joel’s wife didn’t come. After the little service and burial—just a few old people—they sat shivah for a night. The rabbi held an evening service; Laura came. Some visitors, who’d known the children growing up, nudged them to tell stories about their mother. Harriet put pictures on the tables but didn’t say much. No one spoke about Doris’s late anger, her sense of injustice. Now it was Harriet who was angry. Angry at what? Bitter. Unsatisfied. Out of the corner of her eye Laura saw Harriet’s eyes rimmed with tears. But her face was tight, and no tears came.
Laura remembered the bulldog woman she first saw in this house. Laura sees it in Harriet, Doris’s look that first day they met, though softened by sadness.
After the funeral, Joel and Harriet tagged pictures and books, lamps, furniture for shipping or giving away, and they went through the house with a pad making notes for the contractor. They paid Laura, insisted on paying her, to help them clear the house. Joel flew back to Seattle to work; Harriet and Laura stayed on an extra day.
“I’m sure my mother wasn’t easy these past months,” Harriet says. “But you know—she could be wonderful—funny, tender. In the old days. Really until my dad died and then the stroke. You got the worst of it. Joel and I are so grateful to you, your kindness, what you did for her.”
“I really didn’t get the worst.”
Laura turns over and over in her mind fragments of that awful phone conversation she overheard. You got the worst. Both of you. It’s especially in family, Laura says to herself, that people are so awful to one another. But what good to bring that up? She says, “We got past her anger. I grew to love her.”
Harriet closes her eyes and heaves a breath, taking this in.
She’ll never see Harriet again. She so much wants to soothe her, to make things all right between Harriet and her mother. To make peace. Retroactively. Forever. How can that be? And then—oh, then she gets it, gets how to do that. Of course.
“Over and over,” Laura says, “she told me, especially these last couple of months, how much she loved you. Maybe she couldn’t say it to you, but you can’t imagine how often she told me. She said you fought and fought, but deep down you both knew how you loved each other.”
“She said that? Oh, she was just being sentimental. It wasn’t true.”
“Absolutely true. Oh, she was bitter at times—losing your dad, and then the stroke—she could barely walk. But her big secret was loving you. That’s what kept her going, made her happy when she was happy. I wanted her to say it to you, but you know how stubborn she could be. Me, she could tell: She loved you both, you and Joel—but especially you. She was so proud of you. I nagged her to tell you—at least over the phone. She said, ‘Oh, Harriet knows, Harriet knows.’”
Harriet’s face opens. The bulldog look dissolves. Harriet walks into the living room, she sits down and weeps. She rocks back and forth. She weeps.
Laura has lied, but in a deeper sense, hasn’t she told the truth? Would Doris have been so bitter if she hadn’t loved Harriet? It’s because she cared so much that she was so demanding. And Harriet wouldn’t hurt so much if she didn’t love her mother.
And now, she thinks, as she sits in her car looking at the house this spring night, what about my own family? Suppose she speaks to her mother when her father’s not around—to her father when her mother’s out. Let each know what the other has “said.” Love? No, that they wouldn’t believe. But respect? Admiration? Who knows what might come of it?
It’s early May, Tuesday morning at the synagogue. Daffodils and tulips line the flagstone sidewalk to B’nai Shalom. Laura O’Malley is here on her own this time, part of the minyan. She’s here mostly to say Mourners’ Kaddish. She knows that Joel won’t say Kaddish, Harriet won’t say Kaddish. Who else is there? Sam Schulman put his arm around her shoulder at the burial when she wept. Laura asked him: “I’m not family; can I say Kaddish?”
“She’d be grateful.”
So this sunny morning, golden light broadcast aslant through the clerestory windows onto the maple flooring and wall panels, suffusing, it seems, the air, Laura sits down close to Sam, who’s leading the service. He looks like a giant bird, the tallis like wings. His throaty baritone rough but pleasant, he murmurs the Hebrew much faster than she can read, so she floats on his chanting, takes a ride, feels a connection with him and with the young mother with baby in sling, who sits beside her, and an old man, rocking and murmuring. When it comes time, Sam turns to look at her and nods. A couple of others are also reciting it today. Sam sets a slow pace. Laura follows.
It’s as if she’s holding a soul in her hands. But more. She’s taken into herself the chants and the prayers. While she stands there, they’re the truth, the real thing. It’s not that she believes she’s praising some gent in the heavens. Belief, indeed, isn’t the point. Standing and rocking, she finds herself entering a truth created by the chants and prayers—truth engendered by the ten, eleven, twelve of them standing in the little room lit by spring morning light from the clerestory windows.