Wednesday, January 29, 2014

shiva



The pine boxes were originally designed for use as packing crates for potatoes or other root vegetables.  They each were rectangular and had oval openings at each end for lifting the crates and moving them from place to place.

Today, they were the seats that Yafa had chosen for sitting shiva.  It was not a popular choice; her own mother had complained that the seats were not sturdy.

“When my husband died,” Mama told Yafa.  “Remember we had the stools?  Those were for me and you and the uncles and aunts and neighbors.  Then I had the folding chairs for the elderly visitors.  That way they could sit up straight the way they do and not worry about toppling over, Umbashrien!” 

“These are the ones I want, Mama,” Yafa said softly.  Today was day one.  She would have seven days of sitting shiva with her mother, hearing her opinions and suggestions without once asking about how her heart was.  Yafa was the one who just lost her husband, Oris, but the stories Mama was telling were of Yafa’s father, Klein, who had died in October. 

The entryway mirror was covered in a black velvet that Mama had leftover from his shiva and the dark burlap that Hadas had given Yafa was no longer needed. 

“That Hadas giving you this rag,” Mama said folding it up and placing it under the sink in the kitchen.  “Like you’re a schlump on a lump.  This is an American shiva, not one in the Middle East!  When is she coming?”

“She’s getting the food and coming over.”

“When?”

“By twelve, noon.  The minyan has been set for one o’clock.”

“Yes, but our shiva has begun.  The food should be here…”

As Mama began her tirade, Yafa looked out into the street, still covered with a light dusting of snow.  When Oris first showed her the house, he told her that Spencer Avenue would be their new home and the home of many generations.  His face beamed, and when Yafa hugged him, he wept with joy. 

She didn’t like Oris growing up.  He was a proud, fat little boy who had no brothers or sisters, just like her.  Because of this, he got it in his head that they should be married one day.  At seven years old, Yafa laughed at him.

“Why would I marry a stinky little fat boy like you?”  She said, giggling with Hadas.

“Because I’ll be rich!”

Twelve years later Oris finished at Columbia with an MBA and went straight to Wall Street to make good on his promise.  He soon visited her family regularly and Yafa, a third year art student, was scared.

“What if he really wants to marry me?” she thought.  Not only did the thought of marriage terrify her, but the thought of Oris did.  She couldn’t imagine the act of union with him.  She knew he was trying to be a serious man, but he seemed fat and comical to her.  Not at all how she would envision a husband. 

Her painting instructor was more her cup of tea, even though he wasn’t Jewish and had an eye for every skirt in the room.  He respected her art and that was like lovemaking itself…

When the Shidduch happened, Mama and Papa acted like the most blessed people on the planet, even though they both knew that Yafa did not love Oris. 

“Love is overrated!” Mama sighed that evening after dinner.  “The things that matter in a marriage – trust, faithfulness, family – those things Oris will foster and protect, you know that.”

Yafa nodded and in her heart she knew that Mama was right.  After all, Hadas had just married Abe and they were very happy.  Abe, however, was taller than Hadas and wore fashionable clothes. Abe bought an apartment in the Bronx and Hadas decorated it beautifully.  Yafa knew that if she consented to the marriage with Oris, she could live in an apartment close to her friend.

The following week, when Oris came over for her answer, she asked to speak with him in private.  Everyone refused, saying that tradition would not permit it, but Oris asked if they could meet in the open lounge in the living room and everyone else stay in the kitchen, where they were able to see and not hear. 

The compromise was accepted. 

“I am not a traditional girl,” Yafa began.  “Not as much as I want to be.”

“Are these your paintings?” Oris was distracted by the floor to ceiling pieces that her parents had commissioned from her. 

“Yes.” 

He took off his round glasses and began to stare at them, taking his time to drink in each one.  She watched him, not interrupting or insisting that he listen to her.  He began at the iceburg (an abstract that Yafa had named for the mood she was in that day), looking at it carefully and not saying anything.  He moved to the next one, where the color began a crescendo that would climax in the middle of the room.  He was hypnotized by them, and Yafa was pleased. 

She looked at him as he looked at them.  He had grown up well over the years and looked much like her father: a man of understated splendor.  He had a neat beard, smelled nice and wore expensive - but not flashy - clothes.  He wasn’t tall, but he also wasn’t so fat anymore.  Why hadn’t she noticed?
As she watched him he looked at her.  She was caught off guard and stepped back.

“These are amazing,” he said, tears in his eyes.  They smiled at each other and no further discussion was needed.  Yafa fell in love with him, right there. 

Their first kiss was after the glasses were broken under their feet, under the canopy.  Later, they were twirled about on chairs by all of their friends and Yafa knew her life would be happy. 

She was wrong about everything.

Yafa was wrong that the sexual union between her and Oris would be awkward.  It was beautiful and intimate and filled with pleasant surprises each time they were together.  At public parties she would remember him and look across the room and they would smile secretly at one another.  She was wrong about the apartment in Riverdale – Oris gave her the keys to a house a week after they were married.  He had the bathroom retiled because she didn’t like the formica. 

She was wrong that she wouldn’t share romance with him.  He was a hopeless romantic and made her feel like a secret princess, capable of sincere passion and a long happy life together. 

She got a call last Thursday as she got out of the shower.  Oris had died of a sudden heart attack at work and the ambulance had come to collect his body and take him to the mortuary. 

She was a widow before she celebrated her one year anniversary. 

All of the dreams they had together – basset hounds, children, a summer house in the Poconos- came crashing down on her like a piano from a high rise.  She was in a state of shock, even as his parents insisted that he be in the ground that day, in a pine box similar to the ones they had ordered for themselves.  She didn’t know how to comfort his mother, his father.  She watched the burial, then returned to her house to begin sitting shiva.

Today, as her mother went on and on about losing her most beloved father, Yafa was numb and wondered what she would do.  Oris had left her quite comfortable financially, but had taken her heart with him wherever he went.

“Are you even listening to me?”  Mama’s voice broke Yafa out of her trance. 

“Yes, Mama,” she sighed.  “But I’m sad.  Please let me be sad.”

Mama was quiet and looked wounded, but she said, “Okay,” and shut up.

The door opened and Hadas and Abe came in, red eyed and carrying trays of food.  Yafa looked over at her best friend, who looked away quickly and carried her portion into the dining room, where the table had been set up.

When she returned, Hadas touched her friend’s shoulder and Yafa turned around.  Hadas was crying and Yafa hugged her.  Together, the friends shared an outpouring of tears that had no words or reason.  They were cold, empty tears that they were used to crying together.  They were used to weeping together, but today it was different.  Today they began sitting shiva for Oris. 

One by one, the mourners gathered in her home, surrounding the crates that they would sit on.  It was important, according to Jewish tradition for a minyan – at least ten men -to gather so that the service could begin.  Yafa wasn’t good with crowds, but inhaled deeply and remembered this was exactly the way it was supposed to be.   

The mourners all were important to Oris (he was the social one of the two of them) so Yafa welcomed them the best she could.  The Rabbi arrived, as did several of Oris’ male colleagues (even the goys) to recite the Kaddish.  The parlor soon filled with men, women and children, all waiting respectfully for Yafa to sit on her crate. 

She took her place at the center, flanked by her mother and mother-in-law.  Hadas sat behind her and the Rabbi lifted his head.  The prayer he was about to pray was a welcome tradition, one that made Yafa feel secure and cared for by everyone present.  Her community knew how to respect the bereaved, as well as honor the deceased.