Victory Gardens – Chapter 77

Novel

Manny and Mutty disagree over who will go back and care for their parents. Mutty storms out, and witnesses a scene of a young boy washing his grandfather’s feet with tremendous devotion.

*   *   *

TO: MRS. E. ROTHSTEIN

MUTTY RETURNING HOME. STOP.

COME SOONEST. STOP.

SAFE JOURNEY. STOP.

YOURS, MANNY. STOP.

 

“It’s your last chance to back out,” said Manny, showing Mutty the short text of the telegram he planned to send to his wife. “Are you sure about this?”

“Yes,” said Mutty. “I’m sure. It’s the right thing to do.”

“All right. Here we go. No regrets.”

“No regrets.”

The brothers stepped out of the post office into the bright sun of the morning, and headed towards the shipping office. Mutty had lost his return ticket during the pogrom in Chevron, and they hoped to be able to book new passage without having to pay again. In their hands was a notarized letter from the Roshei Yeshivah stating that Mutty had been a student in yeshivah during the time of the pogrom, and had lost all his belongings. There was also a letter from a prominent American supporter of the yeshivah, who had lent his name to all the American boys who had to get back home.

To their good fortune, the shipping agent had been involved in sending some of the other Americans home as well, after the pogrom, so he was familiar with the situation and authorized to honor a reissuing of Mutty’s return passage.

“What took you so long to go home?” he asked.

“He needed time to recover,” said Manny quickly.

The clerk’s face darkened. “Were you injured?” he asked Mutty, looking intently at him.

“Not physically,” said Manny, and shoved the rest of Mutty’s papers towards the clerk. Mutty was scheduled to depart three days hence.

“That’s not much time,” said Manny, looking worriedly his brother.

“It’s fine,” said Mutty. “I’ll be fine.”

There had been a lot of soul searching since the night he’d seen the boy tending to his grandfather. Mutty hadn’t stopped to speak with his rebbi after all. Instead, he’d walked around for most of the night, thinking so hard he thought his skull might break in half.

At last, as the sun began to break through the cape of night, he’d reached his decision. Remaining in Eretz Yisrael was something he wanted to do but was not something he needed. Although Mutty hadn’t ended up spending the time here the way he’d planned, he’d learned things here that he’d never have learned at home. When he thought about it, he’d realized Manny had been right. He had been taking care of things at least as long as Mutty could remember — so much so, in fact, that Mutty wondered if Manny had ever had time just to be a kid, as he had. Had he ever done what he wanted, rather than what was expected of him?

With one act, Mutty had the opportunity to give Manny a gift no one else could. Back at the boarding house at 5:30 a.m., he shook Manny awake.  He looked his brother in the eyes and simply nodded his head.

Manny understood immediately the import of the moment. “All right,” he said. “Thank you.”

“You’re welcome,” Mutty replied. He’d laid down on his bed  and slept until Manny woke him to say Kriyas Shema.

Manny was especially kind to his brother during their final days together. He asked Mutty if he wanted to visit with Zayit again, but Mutty declined. “I want to remember him as we left him, not by saying good-bye. Here’s a letter for him, though. When you see him next, please pass it along.”

“I will,” said Manny.

The days passed quickly, and before either of them knew it, they were at the port.

“Good-bye, brother,” said Manny. His voice was no longer a sound. It was ropes twined together, blocking the air in his mouth. “Thank you.”

“It’s you who deserves the thanks, coming all this way to find me.”

“We’ll see each other soon,” said Manny.

Mutty wasn’t sure about that. He would understand if Manny never returned home. Only he, of their family, as yet understood the hold Eretz Yisrael takes on you, pulling you like a magnetic force, refusing to surrender its precious ones.

They together walked as far as they could, Manny’s arm wrapped around Mutty’s suddenly thin, suddenly small, suddenly frail shoulders.

“Please write,” said Manny.

“You too! More than I did, anyway.”

“Yeah. Take good care of yourself.”

“I’m not going for myself.”

“You know what I mean.”

Although he wasn’t Mutty’s father, Manny felt the need to bless him. He placed his hands on his brother’s head and murmured the words loud enough for only the two of them to hear, then kissed him on both cheeks.

He stood at the port a long time, watching the ship prepare for departure. Mutty had sailed off in a small boat to where the ship was anchored a short distance from shore. Manny waited until he couldn’t see the ship any longer, and then waited a little more, as though it might come back.

But no. It was gone.

To be continued . . .