The summer of 1948 my brother Davy was killed in an accident with a man who would have given his own life rather than have it happen. The man was Italian, and for my mother, Ada Leibritsky, that was explanation enough for why he was a killer. Had he been Irish, she would have said the same. Had he been Polish, or Greek, or even some kind of Protestant, she’d have likewise put the blame on that. Back then it was common enough to think this way, to be suspicious, even hateful, of outsiders, and the Negroes and Jews got the worst of it. So had the man been Jewish, like us, I’ve often wondered if in her mad grief my mother would have attributed the killing to that. Kike, she would have called him in her rage, not noticing that in so doing she’d have missed entirely that it was us, her family, a whole body of Jews, who were more to blame than anyone else.
The summer began typically enough. We arrived at our beach cottage in Woodmont, Connecticut, and my mother flew from the car, determined as always to be the first inside, leaving the rest of us—her three children, her older sister, and her only niece—behind. She rushed up the porch steps, unlocked the door, and strode into the living room. The place was dim, with shades drawn and lights off, and the air was stuffy from three seasons of windows locked shut. Still, from the way she breathed, gulping in the unstirred air as if it were fresh from the shore, you’d think she’d been starved for the stuff. From the living room she looked behind her, at me, on the porch, reluctant to follow her lead until at least one window had been cracked. “Oh, Molly,” she said in a voice that was almost scolding. “We’re here. Here. What in the world are you waiting for?”
We’d almost not gotten there, at least that week, the first one in July, for my father had been sick with a cold over the weekend and couldn’t drive us to Woodmont from our home in Middletown. On Monday he’d felt better but had to go to work. Monday night, after a glum dinner—my mother, two brothers, and I sighing dolorously and effectively throughout—my father had suggested that my older brother, Howard, just graduated from high school, could drive us the next day, Tuesday, as long as he came back on Friday to pick up my father and our uncle Leo for the weekend.
From Middletown we’d be two families in the car: ours and my mother’s sister Vivie’s. But neither woman could drive. Neither could their other sister, Bec, who was to meet us there, traveling from New Haven.
Howard, then, was our only hope. He promised my father that he’d come back on Friday early, in time to join the morning minyan.
My father was a serious man; everyone knew that. But Howard’s words made him beam with joy. Still, he leaned forward, peered over his glasses, and warned, “Howard, sometimes all a man has is his word.”
“Here’s mine,” Howard said, his voice confident, his tone sincere. The two shook hands. Then the whole family, especially Howard, cheered.
But upon our arrival at Woodmont, Howard was less genial, more himself. As he stood by my father’s old Dodge station wagon, unloading suitcases, he yelled, even to our mother, “Hey, nitwits, get your fat fannies over here and help.”
My mother didn’t budge. At forty years old she was still the family beauty, her mass of mahogany hair, pinned up, only just beginning to sprout the occasional gray. A middle child, she was the most forceful of the three Syrkin sisters, and the most opinionated, which had something to do with her beauty, the extra confidence it gave her. She was the certain one, the one who told us that Bess Truman’s idea about her daughter, or any daughter, was right: she should most definitely not become president. And in our world of interethnic hatred, she was the one, spewing forth slurs, who could hate right back. But at that moment, even though from the living room she’d heard Howard well enough—a rudeness he’d never dare in front of our father— she was silent and statuesque, her big black pocketbook, a near appendage of weathered patent leather, dangling from the crook of her bent elbow, her back straight, her head raised, her eyes once again closed, her whole being seemingly intoxicated by the cottage’s oppressive air.
A moment later, though, she came to and charged through the front doorway. She’d just returned to the porch and had opened her mouth to address Howard—apologize, I hoped she’d say—when her eye caught the mezuzah nailed to the doorframe, its pewter casing glinting from the sun. At the sight of it she closed her mouth, was silenced.
Even though he was a religious man, my grandfather Maks Syrkin had waited to nail the mezuzah there until he’d paid off the cottage’s mortgage in June of 1939. For value received, we the undersigned, Maksim and Risel Syrkin, hereby agree to pay to the order of The Bank of New Haven $3,600. . . . The mortgage papers were dated 1915, which put him at twenty-four years in violation of Jewish law: and you shall inscribe these words upon the doorposts of your house and upon your gates. Yet for all those years my grandfather, who never missed a mortgage payment, didn’t consider the cottage his home. Like his house in Middletown, the Woodmont cottage was not a home until every last cent of it had been paid for, he’d told his family again and again, and then he’d told the Woodmont neighbors—Jews all of them—and then, once we were born, he told us, his grandchildren, though we were too young then to understand the rules of Judaism much less the rules of real estate. I remember my grandfather Maks as a strange old man.
Howard, still by the Dodge, continued his rant. “Is this Egypt? Is that sand out there the desert?” he called. I was still on the porch, by my mother’s side, and from there I watched Howard point ahead, toward the beach and Long Island Sound. “What am I,” he continued, “your goddamned slave?”
Our cousin Nina, then fifteen, was the one to yell back to him, “You’re the one treating us like slaves!”
Howard wasn’t the only one startled by Nina’s remark. I was too, for Nina had been virtually silent the entire road trip from Middletown to Woodmont, paging through Darwin’s On the Origin of Species the whole hour. “Is it good?” I’d interrupted once to ask. I also liked to read, but mostly about twelve-year-old girls, like myself. Nina’s answer was quick. “Fantastic,” she’d said, her face, heart-shaped and pretty, tense with concentration. But until she rebuked Howard she’d not said a word since.
Following her remark, Nina simply stopped, halfway between the car and the cottage. Like her mother, she was short, and her hair, the same thick and unruly brown mane of all the women in the family, was pulled back with a ribbon. She wore shorts and an unusually tight summer jersey. You could see that she already had a marvelous figure, even at fifteen. But from everything I knew about Nina I was certain the jersey wasn’t tight for effect; Nina was just too absorbed with the likes of Darwin to notice. My mother had a saying about Nina: “She’s too smart for her own good.”
It was Howard who couldn’t take his eyes off the tight shirt. “Hey Nina, can you and your bazooms hike it over here?” he said next.
“That’s brilliant, Howard. You’re a genius, aren’t you?” Nina snapped back. She strode over, arched her neck, and even though she blushed, she looked him straight in the eyes.
Everyone knew Howard’s grades didn’t compare to Nina’s. “Ouch, ouch,” he teased, reaching behind her as if threatening to snap her bra strap.
“Don’t be an ass,” she told him, then slapped Howard’s arm down.
For a moment it looked as if a fight, as much physical as verbal, would break out between them. But the tension eased when my aunt Vivie rushed off the porch to step between the two, who were often enough at odds with each other. The problem, or so it seemed, was generational: everyone knew my mother had stolen my father from Vivie, and though the sisters no longer fought with each other, their respective firstborns—like biblical characters, born into their animosity—seemed unable not to.
“Don’t be mean,” Vivie told Howard calmly, her hand on his shoulder. “We just got out of the car. Give us a minute, won’t you, to stretch our legs?”
My mother still wasn’t paying attention to the goings-on by the Dodge. Rather, transfixed by the sight of the mezuzah, she reached up and touched the pewter casing. Then she brought her hand to her lips and kissed the fingers that had reached for the words of God. But she wasn’t religious, I knew, only nostalgic. She would have preferred just then to have touched the skin of her father rather than the metal of the mezuzah’s casing, but Maks had died six months after that last mortgage payment in 1939. My mother, Ada, was thirty-two years old then and heavily pregnant with my younger brother Davy, her third child. Maks was seventy-four.
A Friday morning, cloudy, the last week of June 1939, and Maks held the mezuzah in one hand, a hammer in the other. In his shirt pocket were any number of slim nails, and in his left pants pocket were eight more encased mezuzot, enough for all the doorways inside and the back door. Risel, his wife, the woman to whom he’d been matched all those years ago in his birth town of Balta, the woman whom he’d returned to Balta to fetch some five years after his start in America, a woman transformed by her journey across the world from a confident Russian girl to a bewildered and dependent American wife, a woman whom Maks loved endlessly nonetheless, was to have the privilege of holding the first mezuzah, to be nailed to the front entrance. We had all gathered on the cottage porch: Maks and Risel, my mother and Vivie and Bec, and the grandchildren then born—Howard, Nina, and a three-year-old me. Though it was only eleven in the morning, Risel already wore her best Shabbos dress, along with seamed stockings and heels, and Maks had on a necktie, which flapped as the ever-present breezes of early summer crossed the porch. My mother and her sisters wore bathing suits as always, though out of respect for the occasion they had covered them with day dresses, belted and short sleeved. Only we kids showed up in our usual Woodmont wear of swimsuits with sandy bare feet. The fathers, working still in Middletown, would hear about the event—the clothes, the breeze, the lifting clouds, the unborn child kicking for the first time in my mother’s stomach, the tears welling in Risel’s eyes—when they joined us later for our Shabbos meal. The ceremony began: Baruch atah Adonai, Eloheinu melech haolam, Maks began chanting, and when he finished the blessing, Risel turned, pressed the mezuzah to the doorway, angled the thing just so, and my grandfather placed and then hit the first nail.
Vivie repeated her request to Howard. “Can you give us a minute?” This time she squeezed his shoulder and added, “Honey. Please.”
“Honey?” Nina muttered incredulously, causing Vivie to raise an index finger to Nina’s lips.
“Sorry,” Howard said to Vivie, the rising blush on his face matching Nina’s fading one. Vivie, calm as ever, could do this: soften Howard’s hardness. She then leaned into the back of the Dodge and pulled out a bag of groceries. Nina, too, reached for a bag. Howard remained standing amidst the suitcases he’d already unloaded, staring at them as if deciding which to carry in first. But just then he spotted Davy—who up until that moment had been standing unnoticed beside him—lugging up the porch steps a suitcase almost as large as his eight-year-old frame.
“Squirt!” Howard called, running to him. He reached for the suitcase.
“I can do it,” Davy protested.
“I know you can,” Howard said as he tugged at the suitcase. “I just want to help.”
Davy was small but strong, a baseball star in the making, our father hoped. When Howard, with a good ten years on Davy, pulled at the suitcase, Davy pulled back. “I can do it,” he said again, sure of himself. But when Howard tugged harder, the suitcase flew from Davy’s grip.
Suddenly off balance, Davy fell backward. He rolled from the middle step of the porch to its first, and then to the ground.
“See?” Nina called. “See what you did, Howard? Genius.”
I ran off the porch to help Davy, but by the time I got there Howard had him by one arm and Nina by the other. His left knee was scraped but not bleeding. He had another scrape on his left elbow.
“You okay?” we all asked. My mother, still at the front doorway, called the loudest.
You never knew. That was my grandfather Maks’s sense of things and the reason he’d waited so long to hang the mezuzah. You never knew. After all, so many times during Maks’s youth in Russia the family had been driven from their home in the middle of the night. Balta was home, then it wasn’t, then it was again. But you never knew, after that first exile, how long any home would last. And then Maks’s father had died just outside of Balta, the man and the horse he was astride frozen while riding home with firewood one blizzard-ridden February night. Maks was nine then, and because his mother had asked him to go out searching he had found the man himself, had touched the horse’s icy lips, then his father’s boots, lodged forever in stirrups, then his equally unmovable hands, frozen to the reins, before his own screaming set in.
“You okay?” I asked Davy again. As I inspected his scraped elbow Davy jerked it away.
“I can do it,” Davy told me, just like he’d told Howard a moment ago, though this time, hands empty, he wasn’t making sense. Still, because he clearly wanted to be left alone, I returned to my mother’s side.
“He’s all right?” she asked me, and I nodded, turning Davy’s way to be sure.
Below us, at the bottom of the porch steps, Nina glanced over Davy’s head, which put her, chin raised, eye to eye with Howard. “See what you did?” she said again.
From AS CLOSE TO US AS BREATHING. Used with permission of Lee Boudreaux Books. Copyright © 2016 by Elizabeth Poliner.