The baby was due now. I was so happy; soon I’d be playing with my new baby sister or brother. Finally! But my older sister and I had to wait at Bubbie and Zeide‘s until the baby came home. We had to stay with them until Daddy took Mommy to the hospital to get the baby out of her belly. We had to wait just a little while longer.
But, a tough little while. Our grandparents’ apartment on Fox Avenue, in the Bronx in the late 1950s, was high in a dark, ancient brick building. The rooms were crowded with old-fashioned dark wood furniture; the linoleum floors, the couch, the curtains — all covered with large, old-fashioned splashes of flowers. Not like Mommy’s plain brown couch, stark wood floors, no-nonsense Venetian blinds. Bubbie had cut-glass vases and her handmade lace doilies on every surface. I missed the empty spaces and tabletops that Mommy kept clear in our home.
Bubbie’s wrinkled face and old-person smell soured my stomach. She stooped. She wore glasses. Her teeth were black stubs. She crept along the dim paths inside her apartment, feet shuffling in heavy old-lady black-laced shoes with thick high heels. What a funny combination! Fancy heels with everyday laces. She wore a schmatta on her head — once a pretty flowered kerchief, now a flattened stained rag. But she was a kindly soul, spitting out orders with a thick Hungarian accent while her Gypsy gold hoops dangled, hanging from stretched-out holes in her earlobes. Her thick body saddened me, but her bright blue eyes lit up when she saw me. I didn’t understand why others hated her so. She smiled at me; that was enough. But I wanted to go home, where I had my toys, where I knew my way. Where Mommy and Daddy were. That was it, that was what I wanted. To be where I belonged — with Mommy and Daddy.
Sis and I wondered in silence when our parents would come back for us. We did not dare to ask. The answer was too frightening. The Sabbath came that Friday night, lights were dimmed and Shabbos candles lit. We began to despair. Sis explained Mommy and Daddy couldn’t come for us on the Sabbath. Desperation took over.
Sis retired to the bathroom to take care of business. As usual, I kept Sis company there. I perched my four-year old little behind on the edge of the white bathtub. Sis, the big girl at age eight, got the good seat – the toilet. She was my link, the go-between, between my little girl world and the adult world. She translated for me – both directions. Only Sis could hear my voice; somehow I never could speak up loud enough for others to hear. Or, if they heard, they could not understand. “She has a speech problem.” But Sis understood. I relied on her. And took her sage advice to heart at all times. Who else could I depend on? Everyone else left. But I still had Sis. I’d be okay. I still had Sis.
She broke the news to me gently. She had thought about it, and we had to accept it. Mommy and Daddy had been gone for so long, that could only mean one thing.
“They’re not coming back for us,” Sis told me, from her toilet seat of authority. She was matter-of-fact. She was calm. She was resigned.
“I see.” We were abandoned. Lied to. They were never coming back. It was the only explanation.
“But we need a mother,” Sis told me. Yes, I could see that.
Sis had the solution. “Let’s ask Bubbie if we can call HER ‘Mommy’!” What a wonderful idea! Yes, I readily agreed. Let’s ask her!
Sis pulled up her pants and marched right out. Found Bubbie in front of the television, trying on one pair of glasses, then another. Neither of them seemed to work. “Can we call you ‘Mommy’?” But Bubbie shook her head, no. “Call me Bubbie, that’s what I am.” She didn’t understand. We needed a Mommy. Any Mommy. Just someone to call Mommy. My heart sank. I had no Mommy.
Sis and I resigned ourselves. No Mommy. We went off and played together with our make-believe dolls. All of our toys were at our old home. Left behind, before the tie was broken.
But then, the next day, in the afternoon sunshine bathing the flowers sprawled on the living room floor linoleum: There was Mommy! And Daddy! Sitting on hard chairs in the middle of Bubbie’s living room. They looked so young next to Bubbie, whose wisps of white hair crept beyond her kerchief. They were back, so fresh and youthful. But were they? Who were they? I didn’t know for sure. Mommy still had her big belly. She smiled at me, and waved me over. But I held back. I was angry. Why was she gone for so long, to have the baby? And here the baby was still in her belly? We could have been together all that time. Didn’t she want us? I was angry.
Mommy waved at me to come over, but I looked away. I didn’t know her. The tie was broken. She didn’t want me enough. That was why she went away. She was separate now. No longer was I her, and her me. She had gone away, and I could never let her back. Not like before. She was a stranger now. Something had changed. I didn’t know who she was. She wasn’t me now. She was something else.
And that is how it remained. Forever. Separate. The illusion of belonging, belonging totally to another, had been broken. Now I knew I was apart. Lonely. A loneliness no new baby, no returning mother, no lover one day, could ever fill or fix.
Ever. But deep inside, the longing. Never goes away. Never gives up. Never.