Victory Gardens – Chapter 51

Novel

Mama tells Esther that she is proud of her efforts to help her family, and will support her in whatever she needs.

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The trouble started from the moment Mama arrived home. She was still in an excited state from the productive afternoon spent in the company of her daughter-in-law, and Papa noticed the change in her normally placid state right away.

“Where have you been?” he asked, looking at his watch as he spoke as though to imply that wherever she was she’d been gone too long. “And why are your shoes covered with mud?”

Mama stood silently in the foyer. Her instincts told her that even though nothing at all inappropriate had transpired, she should avoid this conversation. She knew that if Papa reached any incorrect conclusion, he might make a rash statement or decision, and would not back away from it. Better that he not have the opportunity at the outset.

“I’m sorry,” said Mama. “I need to change now.”

Quietly, she walked past Papa and went in to change, and then directly into the kitchen, her own domain. She was so certain Papa would not follow her in there that she did not even bother to close the door behind her.

And indeed, Papa remained where he was in the foyer, aware that a seismic shift had just occurred, but having no idea what caused it or what to do about it.

For her part, Mama’s hand was shaking as she took a glass from the cupboard and filled it with water from the tap, the adrenaline she had experienced earlier in the day now leaving her all at once.

Mama prepared and served supper as though today were any other day, having absorbed the importance of keeping the wheels of life turning no matter how squeaky they had become. She made small talk with Papa, and he with her, as though their interaction at the front door had been a figment of the imagination, but the fissure open between them was unusual and unwelcome. Neither of them understood it, but its presence lingered nevertheless.

Esther came for dinner the next evening. Mama had considered asking her not to speak about her garden project but decided against it. If Esther spoke about it then so be it, and if she didn’t, all the better. If she mentioned it and Papa put two and two together, she would own up, of course. It was one thing to protect a precious moment for a few hours, and another entirely to knowingly perpetuate a deception. This far she would not go. Mama almost wished Esther would talk about it, though. The unfamiliar tension that prevailed in the house was almost more than she could bear.

But in fact Esther had somehow intuited that speaking about her project to Papa would be in nobody’s best interest. And so they spoke about the topic that was nearest and dearest to their hearts, and that was, of course, Emanuel. He had sent two telegrams to his parents thus far: one announcing his arrival in Germany, and the other from Italy. They had received no word from him since his arrival in Eretz Yisrael, assuming he had arrived. They had also received a telegram from the yeshivah stating simply that there had been no word yet on Mordechai’s whereabouts. Although in her heart Mama knew that both her sons were alive and well, the worry chipped away at her without cease. When she tried to speak about it with Papa, he would chide her for her lack of emunah. The only time she had felt peaceful since this nightmare had begun was when she’d been up to her wrists in dirt and mud. That had been a refuge from the fear she had nowhere else to place.

“I’ve had a telegram from Emanuel actually,” said Esther, finishing the last of her compote.

Papa put his spoon down and glared at Esther. “And you’ve only just now decided to mention it?”

“I’m sorry, Papa. It arrived this afternoon.”

“Why did he send it to you and not to us directly?” asked Papa.

“I don’t know,” said Esther, but in fact she did know. Manny had not wanted his parents to know he’d been in jail, nor that there was a potential lead as to Mutty’s whereabouts, until it had been confirmed. He knew Esther would not panic as long as she knew he was all right.

“What did it say?” Papa demanded. “Did you bring it with you?”

She had brought it, had been unable to put it down actually, she’d been so thrilled to hear from him.

“I didn’t, Papa. I’m sorry. He sends regards.”

“That’s it?” said Papa.

“That’s it,” said Esther.

There was silence as Esther’s closing of the subject hung in the air over the dinner table like a glowering cloud, and it stayed like that until Esther spoke again.

“I’ll be going then,” she said.

“I’ll walk you out,” said Mama, rising along with her.

Papa remained in his chair, refusing to acknowledge Esther’s departure.

The two women stood by the door as Mama handed Esther her bag and sweater. “Everything all right, Mama?” asked Esther.

“Just fine. Thank you, dear. You’ll come tomorrow? For supper?”

Esther smiled sadly. She had a strong feeling that by tomorrow she would no longer be welcome.

To be continued . . .