Stalker’s Essay Assignment 12, continued
Baby as a mother’s helper in the Greenwald Bungalow Colony near Woodridge, New York in the Catskills.
The borders of my retreat were growing porous and my old life was seeping through. In plain sight, I was smoking a pack of cigarettes a week. I indulged in other activities from my secular life, as well.
I read a novel.
When Essie’s husband’s returned to the City one Sunday night, he left behind a book. I took reading-for-pleasure so for granted, I hadn’t expected the dearth of books in the country. I grabbed up this one, The Chosen, by Chaim Potok. Of course, it had a Jewish theme. That was fine; it was interesting and well written. I stayed up late reading, even though I paid for my indulgence by being tired the next day. After the second night of reading, I slept so much later than usual that Chana sent Avrumie to wake me. He tugged at me gently. I guess I was needed, after all.
Another morning, a different set of hands woke me. Yitzchok was sitting on the edge of my cot, his hands caressing my belly. Chana’s voice came from the next room and, startled, he jumped right up and was gone.
What? What just happened? I was startled too, but, somehow it seemed so natural. And
whatever it was, it was certainly my fault. I said nothing, hoping I would not be punished for wearing a summer cotton nightgown, for sleeping in an exposed cot — for being a 17-year-old virgin with a 33-year-old man sleeping in the next room.
Looking back I wonder, what were these people thinking, having me there like that?
When in doubt, I froze, like a startled animal that could not fight or flee. Instinctively, I played dead. Maybe it will go away on its own. Passive, I said nothing. Submissive, I simply wondered what would happen to me next.
I listened to music.
The colony was without music except for singing on Shabbos, seldom had newspapers, and did not have a single television. The place was a stripped down, rustic summer-
camplike retreat. The residents were mostly disinterested in the outside world, even when at home during the rest of the year. I did spot one radio one evening, though, when I visited another mother’s helper in the manager’s head bungalow. She and I were alone except for her charges asleep in the back room. Rifka was from Chicago, just 14 years old, petite, with short brown hair, brown eyes and eyeglasses. She went to Yeshiva. I liked her; she was my best friend that summer. She’d never met anyone like me, I’m sure.
“Let’s listen to the radio,” I said.
“It’s the Three Weeks.” Music was prohibited during this time, she reminded me. I knew, but didn’t care. Some things are just more important than the Three Weeks, I thought. Her voice sounded more hesitant than frightened, or angry. “It’ll be okay. Just a little,” I said.
What good luck! Uncle John’s Band was playing. Joy! The Dead squeezed into the colony now, a treat like a ripe peach after a day-long fast, and I was revived. How I missed my other life; this one would never do all by itself — once a person is exposed to the outside world, how could you give it all up? I understood better some of the restrictions my father tried to force on me, and the isolation of the Orthodox communities — because once you go out there, well, there’s no going back.
Now Rifka did look unnerved, as she saw me sway to the music and brighten. After the song, I turned the radio off. I had what I needed, let her have her peace.
I still carry that song with me, that moment of light in the darkness of the Three Weeks of Jewish mourning — those weeks that come every mid-summer. I carry that moment I took a another step towards choice.
The Jews are not a happy people, but I wanted to be one.
My other life slipped into the colony one afternoon. I watched my father’s car come down the road, past the colony’s fence; my parents were coming up the final gravel driveway to Chana and Essie’s connected bungalows I didn’t know what to do with them, but Chana was a cheerful, gracious hostess, putting my parents at ease with coffee and rugelah. All new smiles, my parents drove me to Woodbridge for a lunch of deli sandwiches and knishes. Yes, I’m having a wonderful time. All is well.
“You look so good, so tan. We’re glad you got away to the country; it’s so hot and humid in the city, especially this year.
We’re glad you’re not with us, is what I heard.
“And you’re with such nice people.”
Because they follow the rules, is what I heard. Because they seem so religious.
If I freeze, I am trapped and without hope. Fight? Usually, I do not know how to fight. Run, baby, run, that’s what I must do. But for now, I was frozen. I would need help to flee, which meant I would have to let on that I had made a mistake; I had made a bad choice, or I had done bad things: that I deserved to be punished. How can I hide this mess — that is how I thought about it.
A silent voice inside me called out to them. Don’t leave me here. Take me back with you!
But I wasn’t going to ask for help; that was the last thing I would do.
With my parents’ half day visit, and Chana and Essie’s irregular schedule, my days off became compromised. For a second week, I lost out on having a full day to myself. Chana regretted that she had needed me to change my schedule. “We’ll make it up to you,” she said, cheerful as she extended her conciliatory offer, with her husband at her side. “Yitzchok will take you out somewhere, to make it up to you.” What? He convinced her that he should take me out on a date? What would I do, out with him alone? But how could I turn down Chana’s gift without evoking her suspicions. Better to stay quiet than rock the boat.
I went along, lifeless and silent. Yitzchok was jovial, as he and I had kosher pizza at some hotel’s restaurant. Then he drove us by a shimmering, black lake. Which hotel? Which lake? I had no idea. I didn’t drive; I didn’t know roads, nor directions. I put myself in others’ hands and trusted, my attention elsewhere. In the moonlight he parked the car, and we looked over the romantic setting. Sitting on the far right of the car’s front bench seat, I felt self-conscious, vulnerable. He said, “Look at the beautiful lake, the stars in the sky.” This was my treat.
Take me back, please, I don’t know what I’m doing here.
I remembered when it was my father offering me a treat, when I was about three or four years old. “I’ll take a bath with Baby,” he told my mother, announcing a fun activity for us. “I’ll wear a bathing suit.”
She prepared a warm bath and, naked, I slipped in around his feet. I huddled at the end by the tub faucet. He was stretched out, reclining; he gazed at me. He was so long, he took up the whole bathtub, not like my short sister. She and I would have an ocean between us when we played in cool bath water during the summer afternoons that baked our five-story, brick apartment building. I didn’t want to be there, but I did not want to refuse a treat from him and hurt his feelings. He was being so nice to me; what was wrong with me? I sat with my back towards him, trying to make myself as small as possible so he couldn’t see me, real small so maybe I wouldn’t be touching him. I was relieved when it was over, and never suggested again.
Yitzchok brought some leftover kosher pizza home for Chana. The next day, she served it as lunch for Essie and me. “Where did the pizza come from?” asked Essie. Chana stammered around for an answer, gave up and went silent. Essie looked at her quizzingly, and left it at that.
The sisters approached me as I reclined on a lounge chair under the pin oak tree by the playpen, eating Chana’s apples, the children playing at my side. “Stay by Essie’s the rest of the summer,” Chana said. “You can move over to her bungalow today.” Ok. Makes sense to split my time between them. I’m sure it’s only to make things fair, for me to share my time better between the two households. I’m sure it’s only that. I moved my clothes over and now I belonged to Essie, sleeping on her cot and eating her apples.
Chana’s once warm and carefree manner was growing cold and tight. My heart went out to her, but I didn’t know what to do. I wasn’t doing anything wrong. I wasn’t doing anything!
The Three Weeks were coming to an end. For the last meal before the fast of Tish B’av, Chana planned to cook us eggs. “But our mother’s helper doesn’t like eggs,” said Essie.
“I’ll put food coloring in,” said Chana.
It was a long fast ahead, so I ate the dyed-red eggs without protest. But I didn’t like them.
Then Shloymala started talking, and that made things a little worse.
. . . to be continued