Beneath the Surface – Chapter 23

Israel Book Shop presents Chapter 23 of a new online serial novel, Beneath the Surface, by Esther Rapaport. Check back for a new chapter every Thursday or Friday. Click here for previous chapters.

Copyright © 2011 by Israel Bookshop Publication

Menuchi’s perspective, continued:

“I also have good news,” Shragi said after we finished sharing our excitement about Chasya Ehrentreau’s announcement. “Remember I told you about Dan, my uncle fromBelgium?”

I did.

“In the end, plans have changed. He’s not going to marry the gentile girl!”

Baruch Hashem! Did you meet your mother at home?”

“No, she was at work. Simi told me everything. Did I tell you at the time that the girl’s grandmother helped raise my Savta Weingarten after the war?”

“You mentioned something like that.”

“So now my grandmother sent a fax of something she got a few months ago. They are the memoirs of that girl’s grandmother from after the war. Simi told me that the description of my grandmother as a little girl is very touching.” He took a spoonful of soup (without zucchini).

“Oh, Simi read it already?”

“No, it’s in English. But my mother sat until one in the morning and read it from beginning to end, and I guess she told Simi the gist of it.”

“What a shame it’s in English. If it was in Flemish you would also be able to read it.”

“I can barely speak Flemish. I don’t remember much of the language from when I was little, and I certainly can’t read it. I speak to my grandmother mostly in Yiddish,” Shragi said. “Besides, it couldn’t be in Flemish. The woman was British.”

“And her granddaughter?” My soup was finally cool enough for me to begin eating it.

“Belgian.”

“Well, when everyone finishes reading these memoirs, I want to be next on line. It sounds fascinating.”

“I think you’ll be able to get it very soon, because it won’t take my father—if he’s even interested in it—more than ten minutes to read it, and Simi never liked reading in English. She hates the language.”

A small bird suddenly landed on our windowsill. Her feathers were stuck together wetly and she looked cold. Shragi spooned out a small piece of carrot from his plate and cautiously approached the window. The bird fled.

“She must not like carrot,” I said, looking at the tree opposite our window, where the bird had landed and was observing Shragi suspiciously from a safe distance.

Another small bird, perhaps a friend of the first one, suddenly began pecking at a remote corner of my brain. Peck, peck, peck… I turned my attention to it. What did it want?

“Simi doesn’t like reading English,” the bird whispered in a curious tone. “She hates the language. Could it be that she’s not as good in English as she is in everything else?”

“Why is it your business?” I berated the bird. “Who really cares?”

And the bird replied, observing me carefully, “We both do.”

***

Joyce panted breathlessly. “Diana, slow down, please!” she groaned. “I didn’t ask you to join me on my daily run; I meant my daily walk.”

“No problem.”

Joyce’s exhausted legs got a bit of a reprieve, albeit a short one. “Dee!” she exclaimed after a minute. “You’re running again! What’s the hurry?”

“Honestly, I’m not in a hurry. I don’t know what happened to me,” Diana replied.

Joyce didn’t know if that was supposed to be an apology or not. Her amiable niece’s quiet mood perturbed her. She had thought a walk together would be an opportunity to open a conversation, and she would be able to probe as to what had happened to Diana these past two days. But they hardly spoke at all; the walk was basically a concerted effort for Joyce to keep up with Diana, and they were both enveloped in a tense silence the whole time.

“Dee, why are you so quiet?”

A small, sad smile crossed Diana’s face. “I’m not being quiet; I’m thinking.”

“What do you think about so much?” Joyce was of the belief that thinking was a needless item in this world. “You only get in trouble from thinking too much,” she would answer those who worriedly queried what she thought she’d do in such a large, empty house for the next thirty or forty years.

She tugged her fur collar up a bit higher and glanced at the gray sky. It began to drizzle.

“Shall we go back?” Diana suggested, following her aunt’s gaze.

“If we give in to such a drizzle, we’ll sit at home forever,” Joyce replied, and opened her green umbrella. Diana suppressed an urge to kick a piece of wet paper that flitted in her path. She also pulled out the umbrella she had brought along.

“Are you unhappy here, Dee?” The thought suddenly crossed Joyce’s mind and it seemed like the answer to all of Diana’s sighs and grimaces, as well as to the dismal silence in which she had enveloped herself.

“Not too much…” Diana’s umbrella refused to open. The folded metal arms would not straighten out and protect her from the rain.

Joyce observed her niece’s efforts. “I would suggest you join me under my umbrella,” she said. “But you know that when two people are under one umbrella, neither of them is protected. Both of us will get wet. Let’s go into Big Center, over there. It should be dry, pleasant, and heated, just the way I like it.”

Diana obediently followed her aunt. She liked Joyce, but she couldn’t stand some of her firmly held opinions, such as, for example, the way she felt turning up the heat was such a necessity during the winter. Diana preferred to open the window in her small room in the evenings and let the cold air sting at her face a bit. But Joyce always admonished her. “What’s with you? How could you open the window in this freezing weather?”

“I’m hot,” Diana would explain. “I like a bit of air.”

“Just like your father,” Joyce would say with a chuckle, but would still pull the shutter closed. “I’m sorry, dear, but you’re cooling down the whole house.”

And Diana would resign herself to the steamy temperatures in the house, with an occasional, quick jaunt outside just to breathe a bit.

The “dry, pleasant, and heated” mall was indeed heated just the way Joyce liked it.

“Do you need to buy anything in any of these shops?” Joyce queried. “You know, if we’re here already…”

“What? Oh, um, no, thanks.”

“So come and let’s sit on one of those benches. They’re made just for people like us.”

A chattering group passed them, babbling boisterously. Diana watched them until they disappeared from view.

“Do you know them?” Joyce inquired.

“No.” There were tiny lines around Diana’s mouth as she smiled. “I was just rememberingIsrael.”

“Oh, on a trip?”

Diana nodded.

“Very nice. Take advantage of the years that you have the energy to tour the countries of the world. When you get older, it doesn’t go so easy.”

Diana smiled and continued to gaze dreamily in the direction where the group had disappeared.

“So, in the last year, you’ve been in four countries—is that right?”

“Yes. The United States, Israel, Britain, and of course, Belgium.”

“Well, if your parents don’t lack money, then why not? Which one did you like best?”

“In order of like or dislike?”

“Whichever you want.”

Diana played with the snap on her dysfunctional umbrella. “I like Israel best.”

“Really? I have heard that it’s quite nice there, actually.”

Diana didn’t answer directly.

“Belgium’s next on line.”

“And?”

Diana didn’t want to offend her aunt. “And I can’t decide between the last two. I think both theUnited StatesandBritainrate about the same for me, more or less.”

Joyce fixed Diana with a look. “I realized that you aren’t that happy here. So isBritainat the bottom of the list?”

A small puppy barked weakly near them, and Diana looked at it with repulsion. Its fur was blackish-gray and it was wearing a gray vest.

“How can people raise such a creature in their homes?” Diana asked Joyce.

“You’re just like my mother, your grandmother,” Joyce replied. “She hated dogs. Your father and I pleaded with her for years to let us get a dog, but she refused. So, which do you like less,Britainor theUnited States?”

Diana had long come to the conclusion that when Joyce wanted to hear something, she would ultimately hear it. “Both are nice, but the United States is more in tune with my personality.”

Joyce didn’t seem offended. “That’s very possible. You’re a lot like your father and he never fit the description of a ‘proper Briton.’ So you don’t like the crowd at the university?”

“Something like that…”

“And…?”

“The style of lecturers and the material they present are not really my taste.”

“And…?”

“I haven’t found any work.” Diana finally caved in.

“And…?”

“And it’s wonderful staying with you. But I want to leave.”

“Well, I’m not going to chase you out, but if you’re so unhappy here, then maybe it is better for you to go home.” This time Joyce’s tone definitely resonated with insult.

“Oh, no,”Deeanswered and snapped the belt of the umbrella in place.

“Why? You can go study at a different school inBelgium, if the problem there is your old school, or someone who’s studying there.Belgiumis big. Come to think of it, why did you have to come all the way here, anyway?

“I felt the need to get away, far away, to completely change my direction,” Diana said thoughtfully. “And I still think I’m better off far away.”

“So where are you headed if you’re not staying here? TheUnited States?South America?”

At that moment, Joyce made a firm decision. She would encourage and support any decision Diana would make. She knew her Belgian sister-in-law Dora very well, and knew that Diana would not hear what she wanted to hear from her mother. Why should the girl not have even one close person who would serve as an ally? Joyce decided to be that person.

“Oh, I didn’t mean to go as far away as America.”

“But rather?”

“Israel.”

A fragment of a second after Diana uttered the answer, she realized that that was what she really wanted. She wanted to smell the atmosphere of the little country again. She wanted to meet Menuchi again, and perhaps her father, and to discuss the letter that they sent her, the top page in the small pile she had brought with her to Britain. She herself did not know why she had packed them into a side pocket of her suitcase, and had hoped that she wouldn’t have time to even peek at them. But too many moments of boredom found her grasping the long, detailed letter and perusing it with a puckered forehead.

“Haven’t you seen everything there yet? I’ve heard that it’s a very small country, not just a nice one!”

“I certainly haven’t seen everything. I was there hardly a week, and where do you think they took us already? And how many minutes did we spend in each place? But that’s not the point.”

Diana fell silent. So did Joyce. She remembered once reading in an old children’s educational periodical that “when a child is in distress and wants to pour out his heart, your questions will only stop him from talking.” She had no interest in the contents of the periodical, but she had kept it in one of her drawers because the comments that had been added in the margins in her mother’s small, neat handwriting were a wonderful memento. “That’s an excellent idea. I have to send a thank-you letter to Dr. Irender, the author.” “Not a good method.Royis still refusing to touch the fish oil.” And, “The effectiveness of this idea has not yet been proven in our home. In two such cases, Joyce did her homework on time, and twice she didn’t.” Or very tersely: “I’m sure that the author of this book did not have a child likeRoy.”

Perhaps the idea about silence would work with Diana and she would unload what was on her mind? It was a shame Joyce didn’t remember if her mother had made any comments on that specific page, and if yes, what they were. But Joyce could always try the method out anyway…

The test was a success.

“I was actually thinking,” Diana forged on, overcoming her hesitation, “that I would want to be there as more than just a tourist. Maybe I could volunteer or something.”

“That’s a nice idea,” Joyce remarked. “Although today it’s not really so in vogue anymore. But if you want to, why not? Will you contact the embassy?”

“Perhaps…”

“It would be interesting to know if a country’s embassy still organizes volunteer programs. In any case, there are a few private organizations that arrange volunteer programs for young people.”

“Private organizations? Such as what?”

“The Anglican Church, for example, and—”

Diana cut her off. “Not that, Joyce. Thanks. I’m not a missionary.”

Joyce fixed her with a gaze. “The way you say it, it makes a very negative impression.”

Diana didn’t argue. What could she do if on this point, Menuchi had convinced her completely? It was enough that Diana didn’t know what she was going to do with her own life; she certainly wasn’t about to go influence other people’s lives, especially not in an area that she wasn’t as sure of as she was in the past.

“I want to go privately,” she said contritely. “I don’t want to be committed to any organization.”

“Even when you go through the Jewish Agency, you are committed,” Joyce wanted to say. But instead she said, “Come, let’s go. Should we go home or continue our walk?”

Diana had no patience to continue the walk, just like she hadn’t wanted to go out in the first place, but she didn’t want to disappoint Joyce. She was so caring and concerned.

“We’ll continue our walk,” she said. “Let’s go.”

***

Simi listened to Menuchi’s request.

“A Monoploy game for middos?” she asked again, just to confirm that she’d heard correctly.

“Yes, I have a list of the different middos,” Menuchi replied. “I think I’ll print the text out on your computer, if you let me. The question is if you can prepare the board game for me and add the illustrations.” Shragi had naturally suggested that Simi do it, and Menuchi, on the spur of the moment, had agreed to the idea. But as the moments ticked by, she regretted doing so.

“No problem,” Simi replied. “I like to draw. What size should I make the board? Like a real Monopoly board?”

“I think a bit bigger,” Menuchi said, hugging the rolled-up purple oak tag closer to herself. “They’re a lot of girls, so we need lots of squares.”

Simi nodded and wondered to herself about this strange game her sister-in-law was planning for her students or whoever they were.

“If I wanted to do an activity on good middos,” she said casually, “I wouldn’t choose such a direct way. You know, they say that mussar is accepted much better when delivered indirectly.”

“Could be.” Menuchi did not release her grip on the purple oak tag. “But I’m not teaching middos through the game. I’m teaching Orchos Tzaddikim, and the concepts are spelled out clearly in any case. The game is just an extra.”

Simi walked into her room with Menuchi on her heel. Menuchi hadn’t been in this room very often. The shelf above the bed was full of picture frames. There was a picture of Simi at Menuchi and Shragi’s wedding; Simi with Yehudis; Simi in a class picture; and Simi with a friend on a boat; Simi with a friend at the beach; and Simi on a bus full of other people. Simi, Simi, and Simi. How wasn’t she ashamed to decorate her room with so much of “her”? Menuchi wondered each time she came into the room.

There were two other picture frames on the opposite wall. Menuchi didn’t remember them from previous times. “These are my Bnos girls from last year,” Simi said when she caught Menuchi looking at one of the pictures. The girls in the group were all wearing orange caps, and of course, Simi was right in the middle. The second frame had no photo, just a small note on the left side that said: “Waiting to be in the frame with you!”

“That’s from my Bnos girls this year,” Simi added. “They gave it to me when I came to tell them about our first Shabbos Bnos group of the year. Anyway, give me the oak tag and tell me exactly what you had in mind.”

Somehow, Menuchi felt like a nuisance, although she didn’t know why. It looked like Simi really did want to help her. So why did her voice have a slightly scornful tone? Menuchi explained again what she wanted.

Simi unrolled the oak tag. “By the way, if it’s just a shiur in Orchos Tzaddikim, why do you need to have a game?”

“For variation,” Menuchi replied as she sat down on the bed. “It’s not…it’s not a very easy sefer, and don’t forget, they don’t really know the language.”

“So you’re doing other activities for them?”

“Planning to…” Menuchi replied with a meek smile. “But meanwhile, the Monopoly idea was the only one that came to mind.”

“I could give you ideas—if you want, of course. I have two full loose-leafs…” Simi put a ruler onto the board and began drawing straight lines with a thick black marker. Poor Menuchi. It was obvious that ideas were not her strong point. How was a group of seventeen girls going to play with one Monopoly board? And chances were, it wouldn’t even interest them. Monopoly. Really!

“Did you decide what you’re going to use as game pieces?” Simi asked, and then proceeded to suggest several ideas. “You could use regular game pieces; I think you can buy them in any store. You can also take symbolic items such as…”—she thought for a second—“…such as colorful arrows that show that you can always proceed ahead, or maybe small ladders, to show that you can always climb higher.”

Menuchi listened in silence.

“The problem is,” Simi said thoughtfully, “that you need seventeen different pieces! Or eighteen if you plan to play with them. I don’t think these pieces come in so many colors.” She bent over the board again, her forehead creased.

“I thought,” Menuchi said slowly after a moment of silence broken only by the scratch of the ruler and squeak of the marker, “I thought I’d prepare little figures from everyday life. After all, we’re all…” Why are you stammering? “…We’re all soldiers in the world, and there are all sorts of situations that require us to work on our middos. I thought… maybe…”

“From what do you want to make these figures?”

“Maybe Sculpey clay…”

“Seventeen different figures? Do you have ideas for them all?”

“Yes, sort of. Maybe an angry person…or someone, um, with money…for example, or…”

“It’s hard to form facial expressions with Sculpey,” Simi pointed out.

“Right, but they don’t have to be very exact, as long as the message is clear.”

“I see.” Simi went back to the poster board. She did not intend to interfere with her sister-in-law’s plans.

Menuchi took out nineteen colorful packages of Sculpey clay from her bag and gazed at them in concentration. “Now I’m thinking that, maybe, I won’t make the game figures myself. I’ll let each girl create a figure however she wants.”

“That’s actually a nice idea!” Simi raised her eyes.

Why actually? Menuchi thought to herself silently.

“The questions is if it’s age appropriate.”

“The oldest of them is twenty-four,” Menuchi said in a near whisper. “The youngest is nineteen.”

Simi wanted to restrain herself, but she couldn’t. “I don’t know if they’re going to like the idea. It’s one thing to create artistic figures from Sculpey. I can see that. But if you’d ask me, for example, to make a little doll from it? It doesn’t tempt me. And your students are older than I am.”

It would interest me, Menuchi thought to herself and slowly put the clay back into her bag. “We’ll see,” she murmured.

On the way home, with the magnificently illustrated oak tag under her arm, she went into a store and purchased a sheet of stickers with different illustrations. She would just stick one onto each of seventeen cardboard circles, and those would be her game pieces. End of story.

But it wasn’t the end.

Menuchi’s perspective:

Adina was first again, as usual. She saw my large bag and asked for permission to peek inside and be in on the “secret” of what I had brought today. She complimented me on the beautiful artwork (I told her about my talented sister-in-law) and on the great idea (I smiled modestly), and after seeing the game pieces, announced, “They are so sweet!” She asked how much the stickers cost and where I had bought them. And then she pulled out a handful of bags of Sculpey clay from the bottom of the bag.

“Menuchi, what’s this for?”

I’m sure I blushed. I blush so easily that sometimes I think I should just take notice of the times when I remain my natural color.

“It’s Sculpey clay. I had planned to do something with it, but I don’t think we’ll need it after all.”

“Don’t you dare!” She wagged a finger at me in mock warning. “I love working with Sculpey. You’ve got to tell me what you wanted to do with it!”

“I can’t say your threats sound all that scary,” I said, smiling at her as she wagged her finger again.

“Listen,” I said seriously. “I thought at first that each girl could prepare her own game piece from Sculpey; you know, each one would make something that’s her taste. But my sister-in-law said it would be too babyish for you.”

“How does she know us?!” Adina laughed and began arranging the colorful bags in rows on the table. “I don’t think so. And if someone here won’t want to make a piece herself, I’ll gladly do it for her.”

“So you think I should suggest it?” I asked hesitantly.

“Of course!” Adina said. “And tonight you’ll call your sister-in-law and tell her that we all sat and sculpted the clay, okay?”

“We’ll see about that,” I replied.

She looked at me, and then, with her characteristic candor that amazed me each time anew, she remarked, “Tell me, who is this sister-in-law you are so afraid of? She sounds like some really major teacher or something!”

I gasped. “She’s younger than you, Adina. And I’m really not afraid of her, so don’t worry.”

She glanced at me, and a smile danced around the corner of her eye: “You are, and I’m telling you that there’s no reason to be afraid of sisters-in-law who are talented and can draw while you can’t. You can be as special as you are even without knowing how to draw!”

If the differences were manifested only in the drawing issue, that would be fine, I thought. But aloud I said the most cliché thing that I could have: “With such compliments, Adina, I will get so blown up that I won’t be able to get out of the door here!”

“So you’ll stay here!” she crowed.

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