Mutty ponders what to do with the letter addressed to Papa, and decides to leave it up to Mama.
* * *
The following morning Mutty lay in wait for Mama in the kitchen. Often — too often, he thought, for it to be accidental — he and Mama kept different schedules, and there were days he barely saw her at all. He didn’t know what exactly was bothering her, but he could think of a few things: seeing Papa so incapacitated, and Mama being unable to help him; Mama having to rely on help from her son — the list of possibilities was long.
In any case, Mama kept herself scarce, yet always managed to provide a hot meal at lunch and dinner. The strict schedule Mutty had set up for them hadn’t escaped her notice, and in her own quiet way, it became her schedule as well.
Today, though, he had to speak with her, and so he made sure to get up the moment he heard her footsteps in the kitchen. The sound was so familiar it made Mutty’s heart ache, for he remembered the slippery sound of his mother’s house shoes gliding along the floor as she made her way to the kitchen to prepare breakfast for her family and to daven before everyone woke up, when they were young.
Back then, Mutty often awoke earlier than he had to. One of the many different things he did during that time was listen for his mother’s footsteps. The sound he heard now was so similar that he wondered, if he looked down at his mother’s feet, whether she was wearing the same slippers now as she wore then. He had a feeling that she was.
He walked loudly in the hallway before entering the kitchen so as not to startle her, and by the time he came in she was waiting for him.
“Mutty, good morning darling. Can I fix you some coffee?”
“Thanks, Mama, no. In Chevron we didn’t drink before davening, so I’m trying to hold on to that. Is that all right with you?”
“Well,” she said, looking down and yes, sure enough, there were the slippers. They didn’t look the least bit worn, and Papa would always say that it was because she was so light on her feet. “That’s a question for Papa, I’m sure,” she continued. “We’ll have to ask him.”
Mutty took his chance while Mama had left the small opening for him. “Speaking of asking Papa, have you seen this yet?”
“No, of course not. Papa handles the mail,” said Mama.
Mutty took a deep breath. This was going to be harder than he thought. “Right. But before I give this to him, do you recognize the return address?”
Mama took it in hand and stared at the tiny letters written in a neat cursive in the upper left-hand corner. “Of course. It’s from Hugo Eckner, Papa’s colleague from Flensburg.”
“Flensburg?” said Mutty. “Isn’t that where Papa was born?”
“Yes. I think they went to school together.”
“Why would he be writing to Papa now?” asked Mutty.
“I don’t know,” said Mama, turning around to face the counter.
“Hmm. Could you open it for me?” he asked.
“No, of course not. It’s Papa’s private mail. We can’t open it.”
“Even if it looks important?” he asked.
“Especially,” she said.
“What if Papa doesn’t answer me if I ask him?”
“Then ask Manny,” she said, her back still towards Mutty.
Mutty had to work hard to conceal his frustration. He knew what his mother was doing because he’d seen her do it before. If anyone ever embodied the adage of think good and it will be good, it was Mama. What looked to other people like a denial of reality was for Mama some good old-fashioned Jewish positive thinking. It was an impenetrable wall that no one, to his knowledge, had ever been able to breach.
“I can ask Manny, you said?” Mutty asked.
“Yes.” It was Mama’s way of maintaining respect for the man of the house while still being able to get things done. It would take some doing and a little cash, but honoring his father was worth far more than that.
After davening, he walked over to the Western Union office and took a form from the clerk to fill in the message. He wondered how much Esther had told him of his father’s condition, recalling their bitter exchange before she left. It was very possible she’d told him nothing at all, as she’d threatened, and too much information would come as a shock. He decided, for now, to ring around the issue, and after many scratchings and crossing outs, he came up with the message.
TO: MANNY ROTHSTEIN
LETTER HERE FROM HUGO ECKNER. STOP.
PERMISSION TO OPEN? STOP.
YOUR LOVING BROTHER.
It wasn’t a hundred percent necessary, he reasoned, to say explicitly that the letter was addressed to Papa and looked official. Hopefully, he’d read between the lines. This way, everyone would be satisfied, he hoped.
Stepping up like this, into Manny’s suddenly extra-large shoes, was almost physically painful. He felt like his body was being stretched to fit, and while his mind knew he had to do it, his heart was resisting mightily. Part of him wanted to run away and be a boy again, but those days, he knew now for certain, were well and truly gone.
To be continued . . .