Victory Gardens – Chapter 83

Novel

Mutty takes Papa for a haircut, where he meets his former cronies who express their shock over his appearance. Papa doesn’t respond. The barber reveals how proud Papa was of Mutty’s learning in Eretz Yisrael, and how Papa had shared with him his anxiety when Mutty was missing after the pogrom.

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Mutty’s days with Papa quickly settled into a routine. Wake up, wash, daven, eat, walk regardless of the weather, return, lunch, nap, walk, Minchah, Maariv, dinner, sleep. It was grueling at times, but day by day, Mutty could feel Papa growing stronger. When Mutty was most discouraged, that was when Papa would display some miniscule improvement, inspiring him to continue in his quest to bring Papa back to normal life.

Esther was meanwhile packing frantically, calling Mama five to ten times a day, leading the operator to ask whether she should just leave the line open permanently rather than continue to connect them so often. Mama had never been to Eretz Yisrael so she could provide moral support, but not much help with practical advice.

The one who actually was helpful was Mutty. Esther grilled him on the climate, and asked him to describe in minute detail the kitchens of families who lived there.

“Don’t bring anything electric,” was one good piece of advice Mutty offered. “The electricity won’t work there, and even if it did, there isn’t enough juice. You’d blow out the whole city with your iron.”

“So how do the balabustas do their ironing there?”

“They use metal box irons filled with coals.”

“Oh, no,” moaned Esther. “I’ll never be able to manage.”

“I don’t know. Others seem to get by all right.” He was thinking of the calm, neat, perfectly ordered Zayit household. “You’ll figure it out.”

But she still continued to fret.

“Do you think Manny was kidding when he said not to bring my fur coat?”

“He was definitely not kidding,” said Mutty. “Do not bring your fur coat. Seriously, you are going to the desert.”

“Does it ever rain there?”

“Yes, it rains in the winter. But if you wear your fur coat in the rain it will start to smell like a wet dog. Please bring a raincoat!”

After many conversations such as these, Esther was finally packed. She had booked her passage and was scheduled to leave in five days’ time. She spent those days running back and forth between Mama and Mima Faigy, and when the day arrived for her to board ship, she was almost happy to do so.

Mama, Mutty, Mima Faigy and all the children accompanied her to the Chelsea Piers, on the shores of the Hudson River. For this day only, Mutty had hired a male nurse to remain in the house with Papa until his return.

Esther had spared no expense when booking her cabin. She made sure she had pleasant and comfortable accommodations. Mutty was surprised and asked, “Why are you doing this? You know you are going to much simpler surroundings.”

“It’s a hard trip. I want to be in a good frame of mind when I arrive,” was all she said.

They arrived at the pier, with much tumult in getting her trunks and suitcases all arranged. Mutty finally located a porter to load all of her baggage onto the ship.

“My goodness,” the man said. “You staying on board a year?”

“Just load the bags, please,” said Mutty, tucking a tip into the man’s palm.

The emotional leave-taking could only be described as tempestuous. Mama was fairly stoic but, of all people, it was Mima Faigy who was inconsolable.

“You’ve done so much for us. I’ve never thanked you properly,” she wept. This, actually, was true. Mima Faigy had been mostly sparing with her thanks, and now she regretted it. Her reticence hadn’t stopped Esther from helping, but it had been noticed.

“Don’t worry about it. Please, just take care of my gardens. Will you promise?” she asked.

“I promise.” Tears were coursing down her cheeks, and Esther found herself looking at her former guardian through new eyes. The children hung on to Esther’s skirts so tightly she was afraid she would have to either pull their hands off of her or simply drag them up the gangplank. She had actually considered bringing one of the children along, in the same way that she had traveled along with Mima Faigy years ago, but something in Mima’s face warned her away from that idea, as though she’d been thinking the same thing and that Esther shouldn’t dream of voicing such a request.

“Good-bye!” she called out, as she trudged up the gangplank, finally on board the ship. “Good-bye everyone!” She threw kisses and waved from the deck until the ship weighed anchor. Her family stood transfixed at the dock, the engines were loud and roaring, the air was cool and thick. Esther glanced at each member of the family and then addressed Mutty.

“Take care of them!” she called out, even though she doubted that he could hear her voice. Perhaps he would make out the words even without the sound.

“I will!” he shouted back, his voice carrying faintly on the wind and over the roar of the engines. Esther knew that he would. And with that thought, the ship pulled away, the first step on her journey to Eretz Yisrael. She’d remember this moment forever.

To be continued . . .