Leah may have wanted a plan, but that didn’t stop her from asking, “When am I going to meet your mother?” And so it was arranged that the next Sunday Yankel and Leah drove over to Bay Parkway in Bensonhurst to meet his mother. The lobby of her apartment building was inexplicably painted green and had fluorescent lighting installed during the Depression. The combination of the two gave off a ghost-green, fun-house glow. Though it was close to February, a Christmas tree stood in a corner of the lobby, and beside it on a ledge, a lit menorah.
Leah looked at Yankel. “I guess they like to hold on to the holidays here.”
Yankel nodded apologetically as though he had to answer for these time-challenged, backward Bensonhurst people.
Into the elevator they went. She pushed the big round buttons. Yankel’s mother lived on the top floor. Yankel studied Leah as the elevator climbed its way up. “Nervous?” he asked.
“You’ve no reason to be. My mother is not the type to make anyone nervous.”
The elevator stopped at the third floor and a sixty-ish woman in curlers with a laundry basket came in.
“Going down?” she asked.
“Up,” Yankel said. The woman demurred. “I’ll wait for it to come down.”
“You know nothing about women,” Leah continued when the elevator doors closed. “How mean they can be to each other.”
Leah wore high heels and a navy pea coat and navy stockings and gold earrings. A beautiful woolen sweater wrapped her body. She looked, even by Yankel’s habitual unawares about the ways of women, fashionable. But something in her set jaw made her look as though she were spoiling for a fight. Was this how women fought – outdoing or intimidating one another with their clothes? A woman wears her armaments on her body – a quote Yankel remembered from the Talmud.
The elevator rose reluctantly, achingly, like the cranky inhabitants of the building. Leah, as though reading his thoughts, looked up at Yankel and said, “It’s a Jewish elevator, you can hear it krechtz, you can hear it groan.”
Yankel grinned. Leah was beginning to sound like him.
Finally they reached the sixth floor. It was warm in the building yet bleak. Every few steps an apartment, each one more or less the same as the other, but the lives of those inside were different: Jews and Gentiles; Italians, Poles, Pakistanis, Russians, and Indians. Yankel remembered once when he was a child, a man died in one of the apartments down the hall. He was an older man, Italian. The police came. It was a Saturday. They said he died in the bathtub. Yankel remembered how he kept wishing the police to revive the man. An ambulance waited outside. Surely, they could do something with their uniforms and pistols, but of course dead was dead. Nothing you can do about that.
At the door of 612J they knocked. His mother, a diminutive woman, peered through the sight-glass wordlessly and then they heard the door locks being unlatched and turned. She motioned them to come in.
They were hit with the smell of supper – chicken with rice on the stove. A small table in the kitchen held a napkin holder (plastic of course), stuffed with notes, bills, and what-not. Yankel looked at the two of them, his wife to be (who was herself not very tall) towering over his very petite mother.
In the dining room, all three sat at an oval table. Yankel took another look at Leah. She truly looked glamorous, he had to admit. Her shoes were patent leather and there was again the flash of the gold earrings. How come he had never even noticed how women dressed before?
Meanwhile the older woman studied the younger hard, from a distance. It was bizarre for Yankel to watch his mother stare to the point of crudeness. He could follow his mother’s gaze: the chin, the cheekbones, the lips. After a minute or so, said the older to the younger: “You are very pretty.”
And then as if she had resolved something for herself and for her world, she walked over to the mantle and picked up two framed black and white photographs. “This is my mother and father. This one is my grandmother. They came from Tarnopol.”
Leah held the two frames and then looked at Yankel. “You look like your grandmother. She was beautiful.”
Yankel’s mother stretched her hand out and reached up to Leah’s cheek and turned toward Yankel: “May the Lord make the woman who comes into your house like Rachel and like Leah, which two did build the house of Israel.’” She turned now to Leah. “You will be my flesh and blood, fleish and bloot, Bassar v’dam.”
The older woman put out some sugar cookies and tea. Leah made small talk. “Where did you get those beautiful leichter?” she said, gesturing toward the mantle.
“Those candlesticks are all that I have left from my mother. They are from der alter heim, yes, from the old country. My grandmother bought them in Warsaw in 1865. They are the only beautiful thing I own.” His mother’s eyes looked down. “You have to tell me what kind of candlesticks to buy for you. This is the custom, you know, to buy candlesticks for the bride. Tell me and I go to Thirteenth Avenue to the silversmith to buy them.”
Leah was shy to answer. Instead, she nodded and then began a new topic.
“Mrs. Feigenbaum, your son has told me a lot about you.”
“He has?” she said, looking over at him. “I didn’t think…”
“Oh yes, he speaks about you a great deal.”
“I am an old woman.”
Yankel patted her wrist. “Ma, you’re not old.”
“My son does not like me to speak this way,” she said, waving him off with her hand, “but in truth, one’s days are numbered.”
“Let me speak.”
Leah nodded sympathetically to the woman.
On the table an egg kichel lay on a plain white plate, and nearby, Cornell seltzer bottles. “I waited many years for this moment. And I see my son has picked someone special.”
“I am lucky to have been introduced to your son. He is a –”
The old woman cut her off. “I know who he is. You don’t have to embarrass him. I wish you many happy years together. You will see now that I am a woman who gets straight to the point.” She motioned to the candlesticks on the mantle. “You see those? They are yours. I want you should have them. And I won’t take no for an answer. You will leave here with them tonight.”
They made more pleasantries, they ate, they embraced and they left. As soon as the elevator doors safely closed, Leah blurted out, “Wow, that was very dramatic.” She tucked the candlesticks further into a shopping bag stuffed with newspaper.
“I was surprised that my mother did that… totally unexpected.”
They walked to the car carefully. There was ice and snow around and you could hear the crunch underneath your feet. Yankel gallantly leapt over a small snow drift to open the door for Leah. He then got in on his side and started the car.
“Wait,” Leah said just before she buckled her seat belt. “Before we go anywhere, I have to catch my breath. Your mother just gave me – us – I am holding these candlesticks from 1865.”
You could see their breath in the car. It was that cold.
“Yeah, that was something.”
Yankel could see Leah tearing up. “What, Leah?” Had he said the wrong thing? Perhaps he was stupid, he thought, a clod.
(To be continued)