How Beautiful are Your Tents, O Jacob

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21 Apr 2009

We, the children, gather. We return to this house more suddenly than we could have imagined those few months ago when we buried her, summoned by news of a buyer with mortgage approved and anxious to move forward. We arrive in minivans and rental cars, in this Midwestern city no longer quite our home, and confront the disorder we have inherited. We leave spouses and children in our separate lives – “just for two days, honey” – and we prepare to sort relics from trash, the few artifacts we will recover from a sea of clutter.

We move rapidly through our own bedrooms, places we mined long ago for use at college, in first apartments, and in our own children’s playrooms. There remain the odd baseball pennants, LP covers, and newspaper clippings tacked to the wall and, even after we quash them in large black trash bags, they seem to linger on the spaces they occupied for two decades or more. Sweeping out the distant corners behind desks and dressers consigned to the dumpster in the driveway, we find fragments of paper rolled into unreadable pills along with marbles, plastic rings, adapters for 45 rpm singles, zipper tags, the backs of earrings, broken army men, Lee Press On Nails, and two wrinkled baseball cards, Rollie Fingers and a team photo of the 1975 Brewers.

From the hallway, one of us raises a framed poster of a Ringling Brothers Barnum and Bailey College of Clowns poster, a memento of a family outing so long ago that none of us recalls it. She holds it at arms length, and we consider its grotesque collection of faces, clowns that boast uneven grins, vicious drunken eyes, and throbbing carbuncles on their foreheads. It is ugly, its color bleached by sun and indifference. “You know,” one of us confesses, “that thing always scared me.”

We are organized. A shelter for abused women has consented to take both couches, several of the table lights, the microwave she never learned to use, most of the pots, pans, and drinking glasses, and the everyday dishes for meat and milk. We define areas of the empty living room for the keepsakes each of us accepts; one of us claims the Passover dishes, another the old rocking chair. We hope a cousin will take the dining room set. We have piles of glass, paper, and plastic for recycling, and there are boxes of items that we hope will interest the shelter: her old linens, a late-model television, a crock pot still sealed in its box, and a full set of wood-handled knives.

In the kitchen, we throw away the cooking utensils, the blackened cookie sheets, the rolling pin with one grip broken, the spotted placemats, the plastic bag of other plastic bags, the fondue set, the casserole dishes, the coffeemaker, the food processor, the cutting boards, and all the Tupperware. We empty cupboards of oatmeal, raisins, “healthy” cereals, honey, bakers chocolate, balsamic vinegar, baking powder, vanilla, soy sauce, farina, bran flakes, and popcorn. When we turn the spice rack upside down, shaking its contents into a waiting bag, we notice an unopened canister of sage marked A&P, a store that closed more than 20 years ago.

One of us reaches into a trash bag filled with tape-repaired boxes that read Monopoly, Risk, Stratego, Sorry, Stock Market, and Life, and pulls one out. He picks up the five dice from within, and tosses them against a wall. “Yahtzee!” he shouts, letting the exclamation echo one last time within these walls. Then, as abruptly, he returns to our work.

On a top shelf of a hall closet, we discover an unmarked box of more than a dozen mildewing stuffed animals. “Can you believe she saved this stuff,” one of us declares. “That’s Dyno-Bear,” one says. “No,” another corrects, “this one is Dyno-Bear; that was always Bear, just plain Bear.” We close the box again before throwing it into one of the waiting bags.

At 1:30, we break for lunch on newspapers spread across the floor. From that childish angle, the house seems larger. Its possibilities reappear as we erase our own presence here. We can see the home that the buyer might make. It is strange to imagine that we can strip so many years in so few hours, so we do not imagine it. Instead we listen to our old favorite FM station without recognizing any of the music, and we eat.

Without consulting, we know her sitting room is next. A wing off their bedroom, it was her sanctum, a place so long forbidden us that her edict warns us off it even now. We expect her scolding as we turn the knob and push forward; the quiet that greets us is as absolute a sign of her death as the grave where we have not yet raised her stone. We pause in the door frame and sigh.

The shelves in the corner seem easy enough. We claim a handful of inscribed books, and one of us urges another to accept one about Jerusalem signed to the entire family by Teddy Kollek after a talk he gave at the J.C.C. We recognize long rows of the Hadassah journal and Prevention magazine, both arranged chronologically. She drew obsessions from each, insisting that we attend whatever camp or conference, eat or avoid whatever food or supplement, one or the other championed. We share an unspoken guilty relief as we prepare to throw them all away. One of us tempers the moment by insisting that we place them in paper bags – the ones designated for recycling – because it does seem, somehow, more appropriate.

On top of the long vanity, we find a 1970s combination turntable and radio and a few dozen records alphabetical between bookends. There are the ones we expected, ones we heard from beneath the door when she closed it for privacy in our adolescence: Perry Como, Sarah Vaughn, Cantor Richard Tucker, the Chicago Symphony recordings of Bach, Beethoven, and Mahler. One of us recognizes his copy of Bob Dylan’s Highway 61 Revisited; another cannot suppress a laugh when she finds something by Van Halen. “Did she listen to this,” one asks, “or was she just checking up on us?”

There is nothing to do with the makeup, most of it dried and cracking, some of it unopened still and, though we throw it away with some reverence, a slight cloud of rouge rises up. Her jewelry has little value – the engagement ring went to a granddaughter in the will – but there are broaches, rings and earrings that trace their time together. We find a watch, its band obviously too small for the wrist we knew, inscribed on the reverse, “For my coony lemmele as we count down these nine months together.”

She had converted some of the vanity’s drawers into a filing cabinet, and we find folders pressed thick together clearly labeled. One reads “Letters from camp,” another “Report Cards.” Another has a single crayon and marker drawn card that reads, “Mom, we still love Zayde even if he’s gone.” Between their tax returns for each of the last 48 years, boxes of cancelled checks – all in the sensible green safety design – and thick stacks of credit card statements, she has left a full account of their credit history since neither used cash for anything but the occasional birthday or bar mitzvah gift.

In a smaller drawer, we find our birth certificates, original social security cards, expired passports, seven Israeli bonds in a red, decaying rubber band, and a medal one of us recalls him saying he earned for service in Italy. We find a collection of moldering teething rings, a rattle, a single black and white Stride-Rite infant’s shoe, and slim stacks of our high school senior pictures. There is a yellow mailing envelope with “First haircuts” written across it. Inside are separate letter-sized envelopes with each of our names and a date scrawled on them. We compare the locks with our current hair and discover little resemblance. Instead, the greatest likeness lies among the infant hair itself, all of it fine and brown and seeming as if it came from a single child.

We find as well a small jar with a lid that says Gulden’s Spicy Mustard. Inside, filling it beyond the half way mark, are teeth, children’s teeth, purchased we recall in dimes, quarters and, for the fortunate last child’s final tooth, a dollar. One or two have silver fillings in them and a couple are blackened – “from the time I fell face first off the picnic table,” one of us explains. Some have bits of pulp that have hardened to them. One still has a dental floss noose looped around it.

It has grown dark faster than we imagined, and we sense that we have exhausted our productive time. We have agreed that we will spend one last night in this house together. It saves the expense of hotel rooms and promises to get us back to our work at dawn. After dinner at a restaurant we recall from childhood, we return and find spots on the carpeted floor for each of us. We sleep beneath blankets we have found in her closets and, no matter how many we peel off in the course of the night, we cannot make them light enough for comfort.

We sweep, we shake out curtains and, in a few spots, we scrub. We carry plastic and paper bags to their designated places, and we move book cases from where they stood for years to the give-away piles and then, again, to the dumpster itself. We bustle. We go from one room to another more rapidly than habitual furnishings made possible. We slide across wooden floors in stockinged feet and grow accustomed to the widening emptiness around us. We drink in a mixture of freedom and guilt, a tonic we knew well in adolescence but one that tastes different today.

We sense an end. Entire rooms lie empty. What dirt there is will go with title to the house. The sunlight plays across the floors in a way that makes everything unfamiliar. We recognize vacant walls where cluttered furniture occupied us for much of the last day and for who knows how many years before that. When we awake tomorrow, we will have closed this chapter. We will pry the mezuzah from the front door, hand the keys to the realtor, and return to the homes we have built with our own spouses and children.

Suddenly, one of us calls out, “Darn! We forgot to take care of her closet.” And yes, he is right, for the closet off her bedroom remains full. It is as if she has returned when we least expect her.

We recognize the clothes at the front as her outfits of the last several years. They are worn and familiar, and we dispose of them with few pangs because they are the very things she is wearing in most of the photographs with her grandchildren. Just behind them lie her summer clothes, brightly colored when new but now faded, first from years in the sun and then from years crushed behind heavier things.

Further back we find items we can just recall from childhood. There is a fox fur coat, wrapped in a yellowed cotton sheet on a cedar hanger. “It’s real,” one of us declares. “She told me. It’s worth something if it’s in good shape.” There are the dresses she wore to our bar mitzvahs, each dry cleaned from its single wearing since democratic principles demanded that she buy a new one for each occasion. There is a dark blue dress beaded with sequins and with matching high boots; we remember the outfit from their brief period on a Saturday night cocktail circuit along with several of our parents’ friends.

At the very back we find her wedding gown. We recognize it from a set of photos where she is posing under the chuppah with him, with the rabbi, and with their siblings, parents and a single wizened grandmother. It is in a clear vinyl case with a zipper. It has lost much of its color, and it appears sad, sad in the etymological sense, as its laces, bows, and ruffles all look somehow heavy. We have no idea what to do with it as we pull it outward. It seems an insult to move it from a place where it has no doubt rested for as long as any of us has been alive. At the bidding of a silence that may well have been her real voice, each of us shares a measure of its weight in a joint effort to keep it from sagging into a pile.

Broom in hand, one of us calls out from her empty closet that he has found something. As we look upward along the line of his extended arm, we recognize the cobwebbed outlines of what appears a crawl space. It is too high for us to reach, but we recover a wobbly stepladder from the dumpster to investigate and, supporting one another, find that the board lifts away to reveal a space above. Boosting one another up and then pulling after as once we climbed the trees of a neighbor’s yard, we gaze with a flashlight upon a space larger than sense tells us it can be, larger than any of the rooms we know below.

None of us has seen this place in waking hours and yet, at some level of consciousness, we have all always imagined an attic that promised depth to our daylight world. None of us speaks and yet we recognize each others’ thoughts. “Of course this has always been here. Why is it we all forgot – even the two of them – the way to get here?”

We can almost stand in the crawl space, but we hunch low because the slanted roof is studded with the tips of nails that come through from the outside. We train our flashlight across the area and dust particles dance in the beam as it reveals, first, a strangely designed silver piece, roughly a foot high, with a spigot in front and handles on either side. “I think that’s a samovar,” one of us suggests. “Could that have come from Europe?” We touch it, and it is old and cool.

Just behind it, we see three wooden trunks, two with stickers across them in words that appear to be Russian or Slavic. The metal hasp of the first opens easily, and we raise its lid and look inside. There is a pair of impossibly ancient black leather bound books, each with the tongue of a red fabric placeholder sticking out the bottom. There is no writing on either cover, and the words inside are Hebrew. “Here,” one of us explains hesitantly as she points at the first page, “samech-dalet-reish – this is a siddur, a prayer book.” Beside the books, in a corner at first out of the reach of our light, we find a pair of boxes with leather straps dangling from them: tefillin so old that we dare not touch them for fear that they will snap rather than conform to our touch. There is as well an old tallis, one so ancient that there are at least two wine – or blood – stained holes in the small fold that we can see.

We open the second trunk and find a full-length man’s coat, one that smells of hide and that, as we try to lift it with only our arms, weighs too much to raise. Beneath it we find a worn pair of leather boots, a stiff-looking holster of a differently colored leather, a slim fabric cap of the sort a military officer might wear, a much heavier, rounder hat of the kind that some Hasidim have, and a shaving kit with leather strop and the handle of what looks as if it once must have been a horsehair brush. We look to one another for explanation, but we are wordless.

We turn to the third trunk and find we cannot open it. We pry with fingers and search for latches, but find nothing. There is a clasp holding it closed, but we cannot find even the hole where we might insert a key. This chest seems older than the others; where they bear marks of passage, it is simply and eerily smooth with neither destination tags nor identifying signs of any sort. It feels as if some hand or hands rubbed it to the consistency of a bar of soap. One of us holds the light upon it, and the others try to turn it, but it will not budge; perhaps something on the unfinished, incompletely insulated beams beneath has caught it, or perhaps it really is heavy in a way that is almost inconceivable.

Our pushing fails to move the trunk, but something does slide off the top of it. When we train the flashlight to discover what it is, we see a yellow piece of fabric upside down in the dust. One of us turns it over, and we all share an electric instant of recognition. There is a crudely drawn Mogen David in the middle of it, and beneath the letters “Jude.” None of us needs say what it is to the others; we all recognize it from photos of old men and women, small boys and girls, with hands raised and terrified eyes, photos that we’d seen and wished we had not. After a time, one of us, steadying her hand, picks it up and replaces it where it fell.

We acknowledge what we have known from our first glance: these trunks are larger than the hole through which we have climbed. One of us mimes the movement of lifting the final trunk to the crawlspace, but his arms confirm that it is at least twice as wide as the space. There is no way that we can remove any of them, no way that we can distinguish them from this house that has, somehow, grown up around them. Short of disassembling the ceiling, we cannot take with us what we have found.

Each of us proffers some separate relic on the others, but none accepts. Already burdened with carloads and bulging luggage, we harden our hearts to the claims these things make upon them. One of us wonders if we should perhaps take photographs or somehow record what remains, but she speaks without enthusiasm. Our thoughts return to the families that await us, and we grow restless in the confined space pressing upon us. We replace the samovar, shut the trunks we have opened and back away.

We have nothing more to do. We have seen as far as the flashlight can illuminate, and all that remains is for each of us to navigate the way back through the tiny crawlspace. As we depart, each of us takes a final look and then descends to the world of the time when we shared our parents’ roof. We know as we contemplate these unbelievably heavy things, that we have always somehow sensed that they were above, or perhaps below us. We know that even as we leave them where they sit, as we close up again this space and surrender this house of our childhood, that we take them with us. In our homes in cities far from this we also furnish attics that we cannot see, draw sap from roots we cannot feel.

Joe Kraus is an associate professor of English at the University of Scranton where he teaches 20th Century American literature and Creative Nonfiction writing. “How Beautiful Are Your Tents, O Jacob” originally appeared in Moment Magazine (Nov./Dec. 2008) where it won the 2007 Moment/Karma Foundation Short Fiction Contest.

The words of this author reflect his/her own opinions and do not necessarily represent the official position of the Orthodox Union.