“Don’t lose anything,” are my mother’s daily parting words; they follow me down Nachmani Street as I walk to Balfour Elementary.
Today as always I must guard the book bag, the sweater, and particularly the lunch bag with the sandwich and apple, and I am strictly forbidden to forget and leave the new copybook she bought me in the classroom “because then I won’t know what you have learned…”
This is a part of her soul. To a mother from Vilna nothing is more important than discipline and acquisition of education. She does not give up until I disappear from her view, and even then her voice still echoes from far away. “And stop daydreaming!”
I do daydream. Nothing is better. I am no longer within hearing range. I turn to the right, down the street, into Yavneh Street, I cross the street and I am at school. “And don’t chatter because it will be again commented on in your notebook.” Did I dream this part or did she really say it?
I do indeed chat with my bench mates. The teacher, Mrs. Boxer, commands me to move from one bench to the next like the Wondering Jew, until finally I sit by myself at the front bench, right under her supervision. This way she can see from above that I don’t fail other pupils by my chatting.
The worst is trying to concentrate sitting near the window facing the playground next to the Strauss Infirmary.
The treetops wave with the breeze, and I can hear the toddlers’ laugher, far away from mathematical divisions.
Numbers don’t speak to me. I need a story. Judah Maccabee at the head of his army, Sarah and Abraham at their tent’s entrance, Pharaoh’s daughter by the Nile. These stories are my escape from the strict discipline exercised by my teacher, who is the product of the Russian School and believes in using fear and threats.
Mother is not making it easy. Her demand of losing nothing is beyond my strength.
The athletic shoes were forgotten in the school yard. The key which hangs on a thread on my neck, fell down and was lost. A latchkey girl with no key.
“Explain to me again, how can one lose a key?”
“It disappeared. Maybe someone pulled it off during recess?”
“But I tied it securely with the string. Where is the string?”
She raises her hands to Heaven and begs in Yiddish, from Him who is Above, to come to her aid, but He lingers. Father serves in the professional military and his salary is insufficient. “How will I finish the month?”
Mother finds a part time afternoon job and makes me swear I will not tell. She works at retail in a high end dress shop on Allenby Street. July is hot and humid in Tel-Aviv. Consumed by guilt, dressed in her floral yellow dress, she goes out to supplement the family income, leaving my brother Raffi, who is seven years younger than me, in my charge.
“Do not take your eyes off him for a second. I rely on you. Are you at all listening?”
I am listening. Especially when burdened with such heavy responsibilities. I am commanded to guard her most cherished treasure. For a few hours (too long) I must take him to the playground in the park. He is only three. Mother trusts me and I don’t dare refuse.
I am in fifth grade, thin and anemic, daydreaming and losing everything endlessly.
I am excused from physical education which she managed to accomplish by screaming at the school nurse.
“She can’t exercise, she is underweight, the doctor said so” she roars like a lioness and invents mindless reasons. The nurse is scared and releases me from any strenuous activity.
Mother smiles gratefully and apologizes for her outburst. “You understand, I am sure, it’s important she does not lose weight.”
The playground is full of children.
I sit my brother on the carousel, looking at him constantly, guarding him carefully and trying to focus on him exclusively. He must not fall, must not slip, must not get hurt, God forbid, and most important, must not get away from me and disappear. All exactly as I promised her, but the dreams are stronger than me.
The carousel goes round and round and I float to Neverland with Tinker Bell and Peter Pan.
I am flying over the city with Wendy and Michael, the clouds are above and Tel-Aviv below. Suddenly I fall down, land by the carousel and the child is not there.
“Oh my God help me,” I pray in my heart, though not in Yiddish like Mother; she always addresses Him in Yiddish.
All the other children are there and her treasure has disappeared, as if the earth had swallowed him. I failed guarding the child. How will I return home?
Raffi was born when I was seven. The joy of her life and her pride. Her darling son. The most beautiful and the most successful of all. “So much like my father, rest his soul.”
What will I say to her? I could not forget him on the chair in class, no one tore him off the string on my neck during recess. Even the teacher did not take him from me when I was disrupting the lesson.
I am frozen in my place, shocked and confused. What sort of excuse can justify the loss?
“He ran away and disappeared. Maybe he went home and was lost on the way?”
I hear myself begging her, helplessly.
“How can he disappear? Did he cross the street by himself? And I trusted you. Oh my God help me” she cries in Yiddish.
I don’t have a convincing story for her. All is lost. I have heard about her family in Vilna, who disappeared “over there,” her mother who died when she was a child, her father who did not live to make Aliya with her. Her eldest son who had died of an illness. She withstood it all. This she will not withstand.
I am gazing around me. The park is large. People’s voices sound faraway and alien.
I am looking here and there and the child is nowhere, and me, what am I to do? Perhaps the Ishmaelites took him, like in the story about Joseph.
At the end of the park stands an elegant building with many floors. I have never set foot there.
This is the Strauss Infirmary. Vines climb on it from the ground up, crawling upwards and holding on to the walls like snakes; it looks like the house of the wicked queen from the fairy tales.
In a minute she will appear and give me fifty strokes. I have lost the prince.
I run, terrified, to the front entrance, run through long corridors that turn right and left. The building is empty and there is no sign of the child. I climb the stairs to the second floor. Long corridors and countless doors. A maze, like the one in Alice’s Wonderland.
He is not here. Perhaps he is hiding behind one of the doors. I am afraid to open. Where is the key. Maybe I should drink from the bottle. There is no bottle.
Voices are heard from behind the door. A nurse in a green smock comes out into the corridor, notices me and stops. I dare.
“Maybe you have seen a tiny little boy?” I am showing her his height, “cute and naughty?” She is sorry but had not seen him.
“Perhaps he went to the third floor. Try there, the children like to climb up,” she says with a smile, intending to make me stop worrying. I have never worried so much and I am on the verge of crying. How could I go back without him? Better I should run away myself and never be found. Mother will cry and then forgot. She will never forget and I won’t run away.
I am running as fast as I can, and climb to the third floor. If only I won’t meet the wicked witch. If only Peter Pan was with me. Before I reach the top, I hear a cry and I recognize Mother’s baby.
I am not yelling at him at all and not blaming him. I am not angry and I don’t express disappointment such as “I knew you can’t be trusted!”
I pick him up in my arms, hugs him tightly, kiss his cheeks and cry with him. He is holding on to me like a baby monkey and laughs with relief. Breathlessly, I sit on the stairs and thank God for His kindness.
In the evening, before Mother is back from the shop, her treasure and I are sitting in the kitchen corner, eating bread and margarine. I am taking care of him as if I do not see her coming in; if only he says nothing. She is happy to see us, kisses me and gathers my brother into her arms, then gives us two chocolate and a marzipan bars covered in silver paper.
“How was it in the playground? You lost nothing? A true miracle!”
I change the subject quickly before Raffi can blurt out a word. I make up a story, something that happened in school, where I was the heroine.
Mother is amazed, asks for details, a little suspiciously, admires, pretends to believe and relaxes with relief when I am done since all ended well. “What a story… really so hard to believe…”
It’s late and getting dark. Mother quickly puts Raffi to bed. I am saved. Until next time. The Dweller in Heaven heard my prayer, perhaps because I addressed him in Hebrew?