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Roger N. Meyer "...of a different mind "
Puzzle Pieces Image

Bee Baxter

October, 1966

 

AUNT ETTIE

 

 

     Whenever Aunt Ettie dressed to go downtown, Uncle jacked stormed, "For heaven's sake, Et.  Look at yourself."

 

     She did.  She'd stand before the front hall mirror and smile.  She liked what she was -- the brightly bleached hair, the mascared eyelashes, the rouge placed high to draw attention to her dark eyes.

 

     As Uncle Jack went out to start the Model T in front of their apartment house he'd mutter, "Honest to God, you'd think I was married to a ......"

 

     "Streetwalker, Jack?"

 

     "Don't say that word," he'd explode.

 

     "I like to look nice," Aunt Et said, "and if a little make up does it....."

 

     "Little!"  Uncle Jack was in the car by this time.  "Come on already."

 

     "I'm coming, Yankele."

 

     "And don't call me Yankele."

 

     She'd get in the car, lean over and pull his right ear lobe gently.

 

     "Y'mad?"

 

     His eyes softened behind their thick rimless glasses.  His heavy pale mouth parted in a half smile.  Who could stay mad at Ettie.

 

     Even now after six or seven years of his marriage, Jack's mother couldn't find it in her heart to understand or forgive her only son's choice of Ettie Levine, when so many nice girls threw themselves at her Hake.  Mothers talked marriage settlements to her.  He could have had the best.  Wasn't he a CPA from NYU night school?  How many boys worked as hard for an education as her Jake.

 

     And what did he settle for?  Fat little Ettie Levine not even eighteen then, with only a grade school education.  What did he see in her?  She didn't even know how to corset herself.  She laughed too much.  She didn't have a serious thought in her head, that head of dark hair she was bleaching even then to look like a movie star, eppas.

 

     Did she bring him at least money?  Nothing.  She was so poor that she didn't even have a linen tablecloth.  Could she at least cook?  That, she said, she was learning.  A gine learning.  Nothing kosher.  Could she make a strudel you could seen through the dough?  Could she stuff a goose neck it should slice solid but tender?  Cook!  A clam chowder all of a sudden and southern friend chicken.

 

     Jack's mother knew she'd have to visit her son often to make sure he would get a decent meal.  Aunt Ettie welcomed her mother-in-law and relinquished all kitchen rights during the long visits.  This was the final proof to Jack's mother that Ettie was a real crazy one.  What normal wife welcomed a mother-in-law, let alone giving up her wifely privilege of feeding her own man?

 

     So what did Jack see in her?  This tall heavy serious slow moving man balding already and just turning thirty?  He had only shrugged when she asked him, his full highly colored face reddening and said, "Who knows?  I'm stuck with her."

 

     They came to New Haven with their little Sylvia before she was a year old.  Uncle Jack left a good job in New York to get away from the noisy crowded city.  He thought of Connecticut as the country, even though he and Aunt Ettie lived all their New Haven years in city houses or apartments.  He took a bookkeeping job in a men's store but he was soon to be offered the position which he held the rest of his life, that of executive director of the Jewish Home for the Aged.

 

     Even as a young man Uncle Jack had an air of such importance and gravity he lent dignity and weight to any situation over which he presided.  Even in the family he presided rather than visited.

 

     Young as I was, I remember being intrigued at how he seemed to control my volatile father and even my quick-witted mother.  He entered our home with the heaviness of authority of a family priest.  When his face lightened occaionally in a smile, he had a sense of being forgiven for a misdemeanor we hadn't been conscious of having committed.

 

     My brother and I were constantly tempted to challenge this air of authority.  Our teasing of each other and our little cousin Sylvia was almost intentional in his presence.  We seemed to have less control than ever over our starts and giggles, our finger poking and pinching.  When our noise mounted to unbearable levels and my father growled a command or reached for his pants belt, Uncle Jack took over.  Even though he didn't raise his voice, my father retreated.  Uncle Jack rose from his chair to stand huge and frightening over us, not saying a word.

 

     Our giggles subsiding in hiccups, we'd back up to the stairs and sit there in a quiet little clump, temporarily stilled.  It was always Aunt Ettie who came out to us, leaning down to kiss or pat, but staying to start the giggles all over again.

 

     She was never disrespectful in words as we were when muttering the dire and futile threats of childhood.  But she gave us to believe that she was in league with us in our world, where it was fair to hide things from grown-ups.

 

     Whenever I was with Aunt Ettie alone it was as though we were playing grown-up together.  This became the reality.  The unreality was the ponderous sobriety of the outsized adults around us.

 

     I don't remember when I began to know Aunt Ettie and I were friends.  Not friends the way parents and relatives were when they put on that arch look of interest: "And what did you learn in school today dear?"

 

     You could always please them by saying, "I got a hundred in spelling," or "Teacher let me be monitor at lunch time."

 

     But Aunt Ettie never asked questions that required such contrived answers.  She loved to listen about school when I rambled on in the disconnected way a child sees the little parts rather than the whole -- but she never made it necessary to answer so directly.  I had such comfort in her it led me occasionally to the kind of rudeness children show each other.

 

     "If such and such a thing happens, "she said one time, "my name is mud."

 

     "Your name is mud, mud, mud," I chanted at her when it happened.  Mama spanked me to teach me respect for an aunt.  Aunt Ettie sneaked me a Tootsie Roll as I sat crying on the stairs and whispered, "It was my fault, Beatie," after she had said the same thing to Mama.  Mama was firm about it.  "You're both children," she said, "but I can still try to teach this one."

 

     I wondered then if she would have liked to spank Aunt Ettie too.  Maybe my aunt felt spanked because she sat on the stairs and hugged me while she ate a Tootsie Roll with me.

 

     The year we moved to Savin Rock was when the hot baths began.  We lived two blocks from Long Island Sound in a duplex that was old but respectable, the rooms large and sunny, heavy with mahogany china closets and bookshelves.  Aunt Ettie commended Mama's choice of housing complete with dusty small front lawn, but she had no patience with our brown linoleumed bathroom, the hot water heater scabrous with chippint paint in its corner.  Since we had to light it each time there was to be a bath, my frugal mother waited until we all needed one.  The weekly event was a matter of more steam than water, more rough scrubbing that joy.

 

     Aunt Et took throat-deep hot and fragrant baths in an era when most women washed furtively in a few inches of warm water.  Bathing was a daily rite of luxurious escape for her and she initiated me into its sweet therapy the year I was nine.

 

     Saturday mornings I took the trolley to New Haven for dancing class at eleven, hot chocolate and a ham sandwich at Ryker's Drug across from the Green and after that, a bus to Professor Reilly's house for my piano lesson.

 

     My bus passed Aunt Ettie's apartment which is why I had two lunches some Saturdays and two baths besides.  Aunt Et arranged with Professor Reilly to take me an hour later than Mama had asked for, so I'd be able to stop by and have another lunch and a bath.

 

     Aunt Ettie would run the bath for me while she prepared my lunch.  Then she'd sit on the toilet seat next to the tub and talk with me.  I can remember how the sun from the bathroom window lit her glossy blond hair where always the dark brown showed just a little at the roots.

 

     By the time I reached the apartment on Saturdays, my little cousin Sylvia then four, would be playing carefully near the front door.  She was a small grave child with great brown eyes like Aunt Ettie's, a heavy pale mouth like her father's.  She was a serious gentle child who played Jacks neatly and who minded her mother and father in all things.  Sometimes she'd be blue with cold when I'd cross the street from the bus-stop, but because she had been told to play until I came, she would wait for me no matter how uncomfortable she became.  She wore a wooly lamb collar as curly as her own dark hair and held onto the little matching muff with as much love as though it were a kitten.

 

     We would go into the apartment together, I feeling so adult as my aunt's luncheon guest.  Sylvia would be given her bland pot cheese or poached egg.  Aunt Ettie was convinced the child had a delicate stomach.  Then she and I would sit down to the richly indigestible smoked peppered trout or the salty-pink smoked salmon.  She'd have cup after cup of coffee with whipping cream and sugar while I picked the trout flakes down to the small thin bones, spreading each oily peppery morsel thinly on the dark moist pumperknickel slices.  We'd eat the delicatessen dill pickles from their damp bags and now and then Aunt Ettie would roll up a stip of dark red kosher corned beef, lacily fat edged and pop it lazily into her mouth as we talked.

 

     Uncle Jack didn't like her to each such rich foods for lunch, but he was away at his un-Sabbatical pinochle game and we were free of restraint and of his critical eyes on us constantly through his thick rimless glasses.

 

     Uncle Jack treated Aunt Ettie as he did me -- a kiss when he met me, as he bent down heavily and slowly over his great stomach, a formal interview on what I had been doing and an admonition to tell the truth at all times.

 

     "Ettie," he would boom at her after she had told a particularly hilarious story of her day's adventures while shopping, "Ettie -- don't embroider."

 

     But we'd be off in another gale of giggling and he couldn't stop her.  Dark handsome sinister adventurous men were always following Aunt Ettie in her stories.  She'd elude them by ducking into dress or hat shops, out of which she'd emerge always with something she hadn't intended to get --- but just decided that minute she needed.

 

     Or she'd come home with plump paper bags full of cream puffs or chocolate eclairs and hide them quickly from Uncle Jack, cramming them into her mouth in big gulps in her bedroom, letting Sylvia stuff herself until she'd get very pale then very sick.  By the time Sylvia was five or six she could march manfully into the bathroom and throw up the evidence of Aunt Ettie's shopping without any help whatever.

 

     Food and Aunt Ettie weren't new to me.  This rich furtive adventurous eating was my first memory of her.  It was she who took me to a sea food restaurant the first time.  I must have been seven or eight and I ate little clams and hot distressing sauce.  The clams were cold and pulpy in their crushed ice bed and I shut my eyes and gulped each one without daring to set my teeth any closer.

 

     One hot August day when my family was at the beach in Woodmont, I met Aunt Ettie in New Haven so she could help me shop for a school coat.  She first took me up narrow stairs with a curly iron railing to a Chinese restaurant and ordered birds nest soup and chop suey.  We didn't buy the coat.  It was much too hot a day..  I rode back to Woodmont on the open trolley, holding down the Chinese delicacies with terrible effort but I succeeded.  My mother said it was the first time I didn't come to the table earlier than anyone else for supper.  I sat outdoors aimlessly reaching for fireflies and wished that I could die.

 

     But I never told on Aunt Ettie.  No matter what.  Not about the French pastry we ate, standing near the bakery door -- not about the five Hershey bars apiece (with almonds) that we ate up in the third balcony of Poli's Palace, watching the vaudeville acts -- nor about the hot sweet potatoes she bought from the push carts on Oak Street.  I held them between my wooly mittens to warm me before I bit the tops off carefully, to lick the sweet yielding centers.

 

     No.  I never told on Aunt Ettie.  Not about the food, nor about the baths, nor about Professor Reilly.

 

     What, really, would there have been to tell?  They seemed to me, a child of eight, nine and ten, to be like two people in one of my story books.  It wasn't that I didn't see Aunt Ettie clearly.  She said it often enough herself, ruefully but a little archly too, that no one could help seeing her, she weighed too much.  Se was very short but she wasn't really fat.  She was full and plump, her black crepe dresses a little too low in front, a little too tight over the hips.  Her skin was creamy, pale and clear, her hair and eyes magnificent, both a deep glossy brown.  But she had started peroxiding even before she met the Professor.

 

     Her nose was too large but it had an interesting ripple.  He mouth was generously wide, her teeth very small and even, like the milk teeth of a child.  When she laughed it was with her teeth and gums.  She was self-conscious about showing so much of her gums and practised smiling with her lips tightly closed, but she loved to laugh too much to accomplish her aim which was to smile sadly, wistfully, like Alma Rubens whose movie "The Divorcee" she cried to through many matinees.

 

     Professor Reilly wasn't my first piano teacher.  Mama sent for Professor Kornblatt who had to come from Brooklyn to New Haven.  ("Dese are the vite nuts, dese are the black nuts."  "Vot kind of nuts are you." retorted my Russian Jewish father!)  My mother realized she couldn't justify the expensive trip weekly, besides, Papa was unmerciful to Professor Kornblatt at dinner.

 

     Papa was a glove cutter turned pants cutter, an elite craftsman and he had no patience with Professor Kornblatt, who should have known better than make sheep's eyes at my mother and play the piano.  Papa could have forgiven the flirting.  He was not above noticing the "cherry-eyed" widow who lived on the third floor of our brownstone house on Oak and Howard, but he couldn't endure the Professor's long blue-white fingers with the antiseptic nails clicking bleakly on the keys.

 

     Since Mama flared into white lipped anger at Papa's blunt ways with her dear Kornblatt, who only came to New Haven as a great personal favor to a "dear family friend, Mama!"  Papa turned to Aunt Ettie for help in gettng another teacher for me.

 

     Aunt Ettie wanted a teacher again, too.  She was ready to go through her book of Chopin's waltzes once more and felt she needed help.  She must have played other music but I can't remember it.  Chopin was made for Aunt Ettie.  She played him languorously, her nostrils flaring a little at his pictured manly beauty on the cover of the book, as she told me how he and George Sand counted the world well lost for love, whoever George Sand was.  But since she didn't seem to require any comment from me, I never bothered to ask her.

 

     Aunt Ettie played the piano as romantically as she used her mascara-heavy eyelashes.  I used to watch hypnotized, while she spit on the little cake of black paint before she rubbed her brush in the mixture. 

 

     Spit on your eyelashes.  She said water wouldn't make the mascara hold and I guess she needed something to hold on, the way she'd flutter her lashes up and down when she was sitting on the piano stool playing Chopin.

 

     When she played she talked in a kind of drugged musical tone, her shoulders rising and falling alternately, her head flung back to express the great passion, until she would lose her place and have to peer closely at the notes again.

 

     She could never finish memorizing a single Chopin waltz somehow, though she'd start each one with noisy resolution.  But just as she'd notes of her own for the passages with too many sharps or flats, so she would memorize only the first page or so of each waltz and go on with fresh determination to still the next.

 

     This time, though, Aunt Ettie wasn't going to be hurried in chosing a teacher.  The year before she had let Uncle Jack send her a Miss Danziger whom he had met at a Welfare Board Committee meeting.  Uncle Jack always sent home gifted people from the Welfare meetings.  They were especially gifted in his opinion if they made it a point of coming up to him after a meeting to compliment him on his spendid administration of the Home for the Aged.

 

     Miss Danziger had fragile bony ankles, lumpily draped brown taffeta dresses and an emancipated hair-cut.  Her hair, suddenly shingled one week, made her nose more beaked, her chinless profile more lonely.  She was, no thanks to Uncle Jack, a gifted teacher.  Within a month she had Aunt Ettie practicing scales, left hand, right hand and together.  Aunt Et had actually gone through the third book of Czerny Exercises and she was eyeing her Chopin with greater assurance, except that she wasn't happy.

 

     Miss Danziger was not pretty in profile on the creaking dining room chair she pulled up to Aunt Ettie's piano stool.  She insisted on giving a full forty-five minute lesson for forty-five minutes and wouldn't accept even a sip of the hot cocoa with which Aunt Ettie trie to ply her, to cut down on all the hard exercises.

 

     "Thank you, no," Miss Danziger would say crisply, almost patting her flat little stomach with her little words of crisp refusal.  Aunt Ettie felt much fatter when Miss Danziger was in the room and she was pleased when the piano teacher decided to resume her studies at the Conservatory in far away Cincinnati.

 

     "Be sure to write me often, dear," Aunt Ettie said warmly and was a little dismayed when Miss Danziger did just that.  Aunt Ettie couldn't have borne it if Miss Danziger hadn't been made to feel missed, but she really wasn't up to prolonging the pretense.  Aunt Ettie gave out love as a little parlor stove gave warmth through its ising glass door, but she was always startled at the obligation it gave her to continue the gift.

 

     It was this love, this warmth, which must have frightened Professor Reilly the first time he came to teach me.  At that time Aunt Ettie was living on the second floor of our corner brownstone house and she came downstairs early that afternoon before I came home from school.  She wanted to prepare Mama for this gifted man whom she'd heard about only the week before.  He was teaching the daughter of a friend and when Mrs. Appelbaum told Aunt Ettie his touching story, how he had wanted to be a priest but wasn't physically strong enough, Aunt Ettie's tender heart was touched.

 

     "Mamie," she told my mother, "you should always have a cup of nice not cocoa for Professor Reilly for a chilly day.  He's not too strong you know and he's making this long trip across town to teach Beatie because she's only eight.  But next year she'll have to go to his house."

 

     My moother was briskly amused at Aunt Ettie's concern and promised her favorite medicine for chest colds and weaklings -- hot milk and butter with honey.  Aunt Et was shocked.  "Really, Mamie," she said, "remember he's a Catholic!"

 

     Mama wanted to know if Ettie expected Mama to take down the Mezuzah over the door and put up a cross.  "Please, Mamie,"  Aunt Ettie pleaded," "don't make any of your jokes with him."

 

     Mama's jokes were a source of constant embarrassment to Aunt Ettie, who felt their earthiness an affront to her own romantic nature.  She had always thought my parents wouldn't argue so much if Mama were less spunky and funny and would try to act more womanly.

 

     Aunt Ettie was having teaa and lemon in the kitchen with Mama one day when a salesman came to the back door.  "Lady," he said to my mother, "What do you do for moths?"

 

     "Why, nothing," my mother alswered guilessly enough, "what did they ever do for me?"

 

     Aunt Ettie looked sympathetically through the window as the young man descended the steps backward.  "Shame on you, Mamie!"

 

     Aunt Ettie stayed through my first lesson with Professor Reilly to protect him.  She wanted to make sure Mama wouldn't make him uncomfortable.  She supervised my handwashing and hair brushing when I came home from school to make sure I looked alright.  She sighed over my Dutch Bob and whispered that some day she'd use a curling iron on me, as the doorbell rang and Mama opened it to my new piano teacher.

 

     I don't remember whether he was especially tall.  I think perhaps not.  But I remember the way his black hair grew in a beautiful line away from his pale face and I remember his incredibly long dark lashes which I thought were almost girlish.

 

     There was, however, nothing girlish about his face, the handsome aquiline nose and finely chisled nostrils, the dark beard shadowed in although he had obviously shaved very close.  He wore a black suit -- I never saw him in anything but black or very dark blue.  His cuffs were stiffly starched, his hands long fingered and beautiful except for the thick tufts of black hair between the second and third joints.

 

     When he sat down on the chair next to me I was conscious of the smell of shaving soap and something else -- a dry almost unplesant odor --- not a body odor as I might have recognized one in that time before deodorants had become daily ritual, but something new and strange to me.

 

     Now that I am ten years older than Aunt Ettie was when she died, leaving her daughter Sylvia at sixteen to tend and indulge her father, I can begin to define that odor -- perhaps it was one of fright and purity.

 

     From the moment he entered the room, Aunt Ettie didn't take her eyes away from the Professor.  She didn't just sit, she rustled.  She came and went, bringing the cocoa, the little vanilla cookies.  He thanked and ignored her.

 

     She leaned over the side of the piano trying to help me.  Professor Reilly turned a deep painful red as she brushed against him, but he went on with the whole hour lesson as though she weren't there.

 

     When he had given me my practice assignment, my mother came in to ask whether he thought I'd learn to play some day.  The professor smiled for the first time.  He put his hand gently on my head.  "I'm sure of it," he said gently.

 

     "I'd like to take from you," Aunt Ettie said.  "As long as you're coming for my neice, perhaps you can come upstairs after her lesson for me."

 

     "I can arrange that."  The professor didn't look at her but wrote the appointment in the little notebook he carried.

 

     Aunt Ettie smiled with her lips elegantly tightened.  Then she said, "Tell me what you'd like for a little "...she nearly said "nash" but caught herself, "for a little before-dinner snack."

 

     "Oh, nothing, thank you," Professor Reilly said quickly. "My mother always has a good dinner at home for me."

 

     Aunt Ettie kept smiling.  I dont' think she heard him.  "You need a little snack" she said, "coming clear across town like this."

 

     I wonder now what day of the week we took our lessons.  I should remember.  It was a day different from all others for Aunt Ettie.  It couldn't have been Thursday.  That was the day I always watched for Uncle Jacks' Saturday Evening Post to make off for the bathroom with it.  Mother would call and order me to come out and practice, but I'd use one and another excuse until finally I could hear Uncle Jack's heavy angry steps down the hall.  I'd unlock the door quickly and hand him the magazine without a word.  He was torn between his family pride at my adult reading ability and his annoyance at having to invade our bathroom for his possessions.

 

     It couldn't have been Friday, either, for although we had no synagogue affiliation and my father said all traditional religious practices were hypocritical, my mother's orthodox childhood left a Friday night and High Holy Days need in her.  She'd get tickets to Schul each fall for Rosh Hashonah and Yom Kippur and I'd have to go with her for the many years until Papa was brought into the Reformed Temple by his son's ex-Methodist wife, who brought her Christian fervor into her conversion to Judaism.

 

     But on Friday nights, without prayers or candles, there was a Sabbath feeling with the cloth white and cleaming, the best dishes, the clear chicken soup and home made noodles, as finely cut as sea weed, or, during the Passover week, the yellow matzos balls light with many eggs.

 

     No.  It wouldn't have been piano lesson day on Friday.  But which other day?  Whatever day it was, it was made special by long hours of preparation which went on one flight of stairs above us as Aunt Ettie prepared for the piano teacher. 

 

     This, the year Sylvia was three, saw her learning to be handmaiden to Aunt Ettie's weekly beauty rite.  Sylvia handed the towels to blot the heavy wet hair after its morning shampooing.    Then she was allowed to stand by with the bottle of peroxide while Aunt Ettie carefully touched up the dark parts.  Sylvia wanted to play blond Mama too, but Aunt Ettie said she'd have to wait awhile and anyway Daddy wouldn't like it.  Serious little Sylvia said one day, "But Daddy doesn't like your hair bleached, Mommy" and Aunt Ettie said, "Shh..sweetie..shh....go and play."

 

     Aunt Ettie felt like a blond.  She was uncomfortable during the rare times she let her hair grow dark to please Uncle Jack.  She felt so "responsible" with dark hair and much too serious.  She preferred the criticism Uncle Jack heaped on her, to being an acceptable dignified wife.  She was not comfortable with the dignity expected of the wife of one of the city's Jewish leaders.  She attended civic dinners under duress and Uncle Jack would hear her telling one of her "embroidered" yarns to her dinner partner, so both would have an attack of giggles like children misbehaving in church.  He never knew whether to be ashamed or proud that his male colleagues enjoyed his wife's company so much.

 

     Aunt Ettie was a gifted natural mimic and New haven was swarming with enough dialects from foreign merchants and peddlers to give her new material daily.  A trip to the butcher was high adventure when she could bring home the Litvak, Rumanische or Polish dialects she'd hear, through all of which she'd mimic the gravelled tones of the big blond Ukrainian Jewish butcher, who dispensed as many insults as he was handed.

 

     She could sing, too, with more drama than voice quality, but she could wring our hearts with her version of "Meine Teire Mammele" in Yiddish.

 

     When her hair had reached the stage of what she like to think of as "spun gold" she and Sylvia would advance to the next step of prepartion for Professor Reilly.  This was the choice of the dress or blouse and skirt.  Aunt Ettie loved frilly crepe de chine blouses with a camisole ribbon, frosted with a rosette, to provide the peek-a-boo effect, yesterday's plunging neckline!  She had a mocha crepe de chine, a pale green one and a white.  When she wore the white she lifted up her eyes as though she were taking communion. Since she was plumper than crepe de chine could tolerate there was much of her revealed through the blouse -- little buns of soft fat sprung over her camisole behind each arm and her breasts strained against the tightly drawn ribbon in front.

 

     She was so short she should never have cut her height by halfing it with a dark skirt and light blouse but she never saw what she didn't choose to see.  Her little hall mirror showed our Ettie divinely fair with laughing eyes and spun gold hair.  That is the Ettie she brought breathlessly, an Ettie rich in a last minute's drenching of perfume, to Professor Reilly.

 

     By the time the morning of the piano lesson day was over, Aunt Et, having decided on her costume for the day, would bundle up in her heavy blue grocery sweater to take Sylvia for lunch and shopping.  They both loved Oak Street, where the freshly caught fish were slapped on marble counters, the grocery stores hung with dried mushrooms from Poland, the little candy store where they bought Indian nuts for Sylvia to crack between her sharp little teeth.

 

     Aunt Ettie bought a bag of bagels, asking to have two of them split, with a wedge of creamed cheese and smoked salmon nested in each.  Then, muching happily on their sandwiches, they'd wander through many shops, tasting and buying.  For dessert Sylvia could have her choice of nut strudel from the Hungarian bakery or fresh Halva, oily and aromatic of sesame seed.

 

     Soon it was time for Sylvia's nap.  They come home tired, overfed and content and Aunt Ettie would nap like the child she was, until Sylvia woke up.  This was Sylvia's special day, too, because after nap she was allowed to come down and have a special tea party with her Aunt Mamie, while I took my lesson.  After that, I'd join Mama and Sylvia and my brother Dick, then six, in the kitchen.

 

     Already, upstairs, Aunt Ettie was playing the Chopin waltz with which she began her lesson.  Tum..ta ta tum....ta ta tum....ta ta tum...ta ta tum...we used to dance to this in ballet class.  After the Chopin and some fast but smudgy Czerny exercises, the music would stop. 

 

     Sylvia would lift her head.  "Mama's feeding Professor Reilly." she'd say.

 

     But my mother protested.  "He never eats anything!"

 

     Mama wasn't completely right.  Now and then Professor Reilly's slim hand would reluctantly reach out for a cracker or a piece of cinnamon toast as his eyes roamed the tea cart, heaped with foods he had never known or would taste.

 

     A bowl of schmaltz herring in thick sour cream with fresh dill chopped into it.....a little chafing dish brimming with sweet-sour meat balls, the sharp balancing the sweet with piquant precision.  Sometimes he'd be offered a small bowl of thick barley soup, black bits of mushrooms making it fragrant.  There would be chopped herring, finely minced with egg and apple, sweet, salt and vinegar....chopped chicken livers, pounded in Aunt Ettie's big wooden bowl with chicken or goose cracklings, almost burned onions and hard cooked eggs.....this, served with small firm pickeld green tomatoes.  Thin pumperknickel sandwiches spread with copped green onions and sweet butter....little hard rolls sprinkled with poppy seed stood in their pretty dishes and always, a little Dresden girl pushing a white cart, delicate as an egg shell, filled with big firm preserved strawberries.

 

     The pot of cocoa stood near the thin small cups, a bowl of whipped cream spinkled with nutmeg, to be spooned ice-cold over the hot chocolate drink and with this, Nuss Brot, a hard nut-filled cookie for dunking...squares of apple cake with brown sugar and butter streusel, and always Aunt Ettie's favorite, golden balls of sponge cakes, jelly centered, frosted with cocoanut-dipped white divinity icing.

 

     As Aunt Ettie wheeled the loaded tea cart in each week, after setting the extra dishes on the long table behind the slippery Mission leather sofa, the Professor lifted his hands from the piano, where he had been playing an occasional treble note like a child newly experimenting with sound.

 

     He swung around on the piano stool to eye the display.  Each week, month after month, he explained to this round, eagerly friendly woman that it wasn't a case of having no appetitie, it was only that he had to get home for dinner, else his mother would be both frightened and angry.

 

     "But just this once?" Aunt Ettie would plead.  "Look -- this little cake -- this tiny sandwich."

 

     Professor Reilly held up the cool palm of his right hand.  "You're very kind, Mrs. Abrams.....very kind.....perhaps I will have....."

 

     "Yes....."  Aunt Ettie hung on his next word.

 

     "Just a small cup of cocoa.  No, no cream, thanks."

 

     Her eyes looked at his so warmly.  Were they tear-filled?  Once again, her gifts refused, she smiled bravely saying, "Next week, perhaps?"  "Perhaps," said Professor Reilly finishing his cocoa.  "Now -- to that polonaise, if you please."

 

     And the music was off at a gallop.

 

     What made me think then, that I was keeping a trust by not talking about Professor Reilly and Aunt Ettie to anybody, not even Mama....any more than I'd talk about the clams or Chinese food.....the chocolate eclairs or later, the hot baths?  What, after all, was there to tell?

 

     I wonder whether she ever knew his first name.  She never used it.  Could I have told that as she lifted his heavy dark coat to hand him, she held it in her arms as if he were inside it.  That she would brush his hat with caressing flicks of her whisk-broom, thinking perhaps the brush was her hand and it in his black black hair.

 

     Did he ever see her for the riches and full food of live she offered of herself each week and was refused?  Did he think, sometimes, as he stood stiffly holding the swinging strap of a crowded street car on his way home across town, of what it might mean to eat his fill?  To lift the food with greedy hands....to profane his dry mouth with the riches she offered of food and love?

 

     Or would she have been as shocked as he to think beyond the herring salad, the Nuss Brot, the nourishing old-country barley soup.  Had she been kept or kept herself such a child, that the sweets of the party were sweetness enough, her desire no more than wanting that he share the bowl?

 

     This I will never know.  Yet I sense the complete innocence of the gift and the giver.

 

     Aunt Ettie took Professor Reilly down to the big front door each week, to watch him through the heavy stained glass panels until he turned the corner from her sight.

 

     "Sylvia darling," she'd call.  "Mamie, Dickie Boy, Beatie, come, let's have a party."  And upstairs we'd run after her, Mama shrugging at the madness of it but joining, too.  And there, Papa and Uncle Jack would find us, our faces smeared, our eyes shining.

 

     "Ettie."  Uncle Jack's voice was stern, fatherly, but she'd run and throw herself at him like a girl.  "Yankele," she'd say.  "Eat something.  You too, Rubin," and smiling at themselves, our men would sit and snack with us as the winter day turned to dusk and the crumbs of our feast fell unregarded to the floor.

 

     Mama would start the song then, her voice high and sweet, easy there in the half-dark room, no longer shy at singing what we all felt.  "As you come to the end of a perfect day...."

 

     We would join her, all of us, Uncle Jack's deep bass supporting our lighter voices, "And you find at the end of a perfect day, the soul of a friend you've made."

 

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