Oil and Water

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22 Dec 2005

When I was growing up, we never visited my father’s sister, my Aunt Shirl, who lived in Boston. The very mention of her would cause my mother’s eyes to cross. I knew that my mother couldn’t bear to be around her, although I didn’t know why. The few times I had been with Shirl, she seemed lovely. She had a heart-shaped face framed by a widow’s peak, and a musical voice that always sounded slightly amused. Besides, she was my father’s younger sister, and I could see that he loved her. It’s hard to pinpoint when, exactly, my mother and Shirl stopped speaking, but I sensed with a child’s intuition that whatever had happened between them was deep and irresolvable.

Over the years, there were blow-ups. After returning from my grandfather’s Orthodox Jewish funeral, my mother, upset by the starkness of the service, looked at her grieving sister-in-law and called the ritual barbaric. Shirl didn’t attend my bat mitzvah because she had the flu. But my mother decided Shirl looked down her nose at us because we weren’t religious enough. My mother retaliated. She refused to attend one of Shirl’s son’s weddings. Instead she dressed me, for this black-tie affair, in a gingham dress, and sent me with my father. Shirl saw that as a slap in the face.

Gradually, these slights built a wall higher than it seemed any of us could cross. I never knew my cousins, and that made me, as an only child, even lonelier. Shirl and her family faded into the background of our lives until they seemed practically not to exist. I carried their loss around with me in the worst possible way, without even knowing it was there.

When I was 23, my parents were in a car crash. My mother broke eighty bones. My father died. In the months that followed, whatever Band-Aids had held the family together were torn off completely. The rift between my mother and Shirl descended into true bitterness. A year later, when it was time for the ritual unveiling of my father’s tombstone, Shirl was banned from the ceremony by my mother. “Your father would not have wanted her there,” my mother said.

I remember standing on a cold November day at my father’s grave site, the wind whipping my coat around my shins, and feeling the gnawing hole left inside me by his death was made even more ragged by the loss of my aunt – my father’s sister. I couldn’t imagine that she and I could ever be like family again. Not after all that bad blood.

But I had underestimated my Aunt Shirl. In the years after my father’s death, she kept reaching out a hand to me. She called me each year on the anniversary of my parents’ accident – the only relative to do so – and left messages on my answering machine, just to say she was thinking about me and knew how hard it was. At first, I wasn’t able to reach a hand back. I felt my loyalty had to be to my mother. But the hole inside me that had been there since childhood, making me feel half-orphaned, finally became more than I could bear. I began to sneak off to see my father’s sister in Boston, hiding the relationship from my mother. I knew my father had done the same thing – meeting her for lunch or dinner – never telling my mother.

Shirl has a beautiful old house, on a street lined with 200-year-old beech trees. Her home is always cool and dark no matter what the season. To enter it is to enter another time. It is so quiet inside that you can hear all the clocks ticking. She always seems to have an assortment of homemade cookies ready, and never has a hair out of place. I find it easier to breathe when I’m with Shirl, as if her presence unplugs something deep inside my chest. We sit in the study, a wood-paneled room lined with leather-bound Hebrew books. Family photographs in silver frames are arranged on a desk. In front are color pictures of my father and my uncle Harvey, Shirl’s brothers, men who died too young.

It’s Chanukah, and the winter light falls across the sofa where Shirl sits, holding a cup of tea in a hand that looks too young to be seventy. “Have I ever told you my rag man story?” she asks. She hasn’t, but that doesn’t matter. I’d listen to any of her stories over and over again, picking up details I hadn’t heard before as if seeing new colors in a rich and intricate tapestry, one I have longed to feel and touch all my life.

“I was five and a half,” Aunt Shirl began. “We lived on Central Park West, on the second floor. It was just before Chanukah, on a bitter cold day, and my mother took me to Columbus Avenue to buy candles for the menorah. She promised to get me a cookie. The Upper West Side was a quiet neighborhood then. You could walk down a side street and not see a soul. Columbus Avenue had just a few shopkeepers and a Kosher butcher.

“There were brownstones along the street, and patio areas two steps down where there were big garbage cans. As we walked past one of them, my mother saw an old Jew. His beard was gray, he was covered with grime. He hadn’t seen comfort in quite a while. He was a good-sized man.”

“My mother said to him, ‘What are you doing?’ He said to her, ‘This is how I make my living.’ Had had a stick with a nail on the end, and he was picking through rubbish barrels looking for rags. My mother told him, ‘It’s very cold out. Would you like some soup?’ He shrugged his shoulders, and my mother said, ‘Come with me.’ I was just a child,” Shirl laughs. “All I thought was, ‘there goes my cookie.’

“When we got to our building, my mother told him we were Orthodox, and she would prepare something dairy for him to eat. In the meantime, wouldn’t he like to take a hot shower and refresh himself? While he was in my parents’ bedroom, my mother took away all his clothes. Then she laid out some of my father’s clothes, and put money in the pockets. And when this man came out, he had a snow-white beard, and piercing, marine-blue eyes, with light in them. A beautiful face. He sat down, and my mother gave him some soup. The Chanukah menorah was near us, on the windowsill, polished to a high gleam and ready for yontef. When the man was finished eating, he turned to my mother and asked, ‘With what may I ask the almighty to bless you when I pray?’

“My mother said, ‘I have everything. God has been good to us. I have two beautiful children.’ She did not tell the man that she had tried to have another child, but had had several miscarriages. She was told she had a tumor. She could never have any more children.

“The man prayed,” said Aunt Shirl, “and then he walked away. A few weeks later, after Chanukah was over, my mother went to the doctor. After he examined her, the doctor said ‘Mrs. Shapiro, I am not a religious man, and I don’t believe in miracles, but you are pregnant.’

“The baby was your uncle Harvey,” Shirl says, her voice cracking as she glances at a photograph of her younger brother, a handsome, bearded man, middle-aged in the photo, now dead of a heart attack. I know she is thinking that, in our family, there have been too many early deaths, too much loss. And I can see that loss, welling in her eyes.

“When Harvey was born,” she went on, “my mother had a difficult time. She was 34, old for childbirth in those days. He was a very big baby, and he was breech. My father was terrified. It was the only time I can ever remember him crying. My mother told him not to worry. She had a sense that God meant for her to have this baby, and that nothing bad was going to happen.”

Shirl finishes her story, and I sink back into my chair, fighting back tears. The Chanukahs of my childhood seem far away, as if they happened in a different galaxy. There was always something missing, something I couldn’t put my finger on. I can remember the menorah, reflected against the wintry darkness of the bay window in my parents’ living room, and the little mesh bags of chocolate Chanukah gelt, and the plastic dreidels I would spin and spin, alone on the floor. I received eight gifts during the holiday, a gift for every candle. Usually there was one big gift, like a basketball hoop for the backyard, and then lots of small ones, like mittens and socks. But Shirl’s story seems to be about a truer kind of gift: the gift of believing in miracles. And by telling it, she is giving a miracle to me.

“Our love is such a gift,” she tells me. “Who would have thought we’d be able to sit together like this? After everything that’s happened?” Both our eyes fill with tears, and the true lesson of Chanukah is here to be learned in this quiet room, filled with the books and portraits of my ancestors. If my grandmother hadn’t stopped the rag man on that snowy street 65 years ago, would my Uncle Harvey ever have been born? Is that the miracle? Perhaps, but I’m not sure.

It seems to be that the true miracle is that an elegant woman with a big heart, walking with her little girl on a Chanukah errand, gave a man the gift of his own dignity. And that the girl who witnessed that act grew up to be a gracious woman, gracious enough to reach across the wide, deep ravine of our family’s bitterness and misunderstanding, and hold out a hand to me.

Dani Shapiro is a novelist whose books include Playing With Fire, Fugitive Blue, Picture the Wreck, and a memoir, Slow Motion. Her latest novel, Family History, was published by Knopf in 2003 and is now available in paperback from Anchor Books.

© 2005 Dani Shapiro. This story originally appeared in Hanukkah Lights: Stories of the Season, edited by Susan Stamberg and Murray Horowitz, and published by Melcher Media.

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