As guest of honour
By Suzann Dodd
As guest of honour in her brother’s home, Grace was given the red chair.
His wife, Jeanie, served fresh brewed coffee, as Solly began to
’soften’ her up for a loan.
Solly was her baby brother, now in his forties, still unable to manage
As Solly droned, Grace recalled their mother.
He wasn’t a year old when the Spanish flu took Anna away. Grace had
been fourteen, the little mother, with Benny and Jackie and little
Solly to look after. Jackie was about three then, the same age as
Solly’s daughter, Sara. There was a resemblance, she thought, as she
swam through memories as browned as photographs.
Sara was sitting on the floor playing with a toy, singing a children’s
song, but in French.
It couldn’t be.
“What are you singing?” Grace demanded.
Sara stopped, fingers in mouth as if she’d let a secret escape. For a
moment, her eyes were wise, then babyhood returned and she scurried
“She speaks French?” barked Grace at Solly.
“Oh course not. What are you thinking of?” he asked angrily, his
constructed pleas for cash unheard by his rapidly ageing sister, who
seemed to be hurtling into senility.
Grace looked where Sara had been, then back to Solly. Years piled on.
She him as he had been, now as he was. She wanted very much to go
home, to return to her one room apartment where she was surrounded by
her things, not in this pseudo modern knock off world of the ‘fabulist
fifties’, as she named it.
When home, having written Solly a check, thus getting rid of him, she
sat on the rocker and looked at nothing, remembering her life, which
was far more interesting than Solly’s would ever be.
That night she dreamed of her past, of being a little girl in France
before World War I…she was with her best friend, Hanna and they were
singing… She was woken by a neighbour’s radio, playing the same song.
The song she had heard Sara sing. But as sleep retreated, she realised
her mistake. It was a popular tune, the melody only slightly
resembling that which dissipated, leaving only the hint, not the words
nor the tune.
* * *
Ten years later, Grace was at the table in Solly’s house. Sara was
fourteen and the memory of the song was brought alive by the pattern
on a plate. Solly droned, softening her up for another loan, and very
quietly, in French, she asked Sara to pass the salt.
Sara did, and Grace remarked;
“How did you know what I said?”
Sara looked blank; “You asked me to pass the salt.”
“Yes, but I didn’t ask you in English.”
“Of course you did.” Sara replied.
Grace spoke to her in French and Sara looked around nervously. Whether
she was playing or honest, Grace couldn’t tell. Solly was annoyed as
his begging had been interrupted, so slapped Sara when she said;
“You asked in English!”.
Sara ran from the table, Grace rebuked Solly, then asked to be taken
home, punishing him by not writing a cheque.
That was the penultimate time Grace saw Sara, and the last they spoke.
Sara labelled her the crazy aunt and avoided her. The matter would
naturally end there, but Grace’s new neighbour had read Bridey Murphy
and was sure reincarnation existed.
One day, while they sat in front of the building on folding chairs,
Grace mentioned Sara’s singing in French and understanding the
Zelda wanted to meet Sara, but by this time, Grace and Solly weren’t
speaking. There was no opportunity for reapproachment.
Grace died a few months later. Zelda went to the funeral to find Sara.
After basic introductions, Sara, as any sullen teenager, dragged to a
funeral for a trivial character in her life, was not at all interested
As Grace had often told Zelda of ‘Solly the beggar’, she realised if
she could make him believe she would loan him money a connection could
be formed. Lying in desperation, Zelda claimed to have money for him
and a piece of jewellery for Sara.
As Solly was never one to pass up a chance at a loan, he couldn’t wait
to toss his sister in the ground and get to Zelda’s apartment where he
might be able to lay hands on treasures.
As they drove away from the cemetery, Zelda considered how she would
hold their focus.
She thought of Grace.
As women who had neither husband nor child to take attention from
themselves, Grace and Zelda had made a casual pact. Exchanging keys,
they had vowed to race in and grab treasures at the other’s death.
Zelda had found Grace’s body when the knocks weren’t answered. Before
calling the police, Zelda cleaned out a drawer and the cabinet and
moved Grace’s ‘magic’ table into her apartment.
When the police arrived, Zelda told them Grace’s door was unlocked. In
those days it was not strange for doors to be unlocked to avoid
locking one’s self out.
After Grace’s body was removed, Zelda had called Ben, Grace’s most
stable brother. If she had thought, she’d of called Solly. Now, as
Solly drove to her flat, Zelda scratched her brain trying to think of
some way she could connect with Sara, and find the new Bridey Murphy.
Zelda decided to loan Solly a hundred dollars with the provision of
having Sara visit her once a week to repay in ten dollar instalments.
Sara’s face was a portrait of disgust, as if she were asked to sleep
beside Grace’s corpse. Solly was ready to sell his soul for that kind
So against her will, every Sunday for the next ten weeks, Sara would
be dropped off by her father, spend two hours with Zelda, then be
picked up. If Sara had hated her father before, this new loathing
moved it into the Guinness Book of Records.
Zelda looked forward to the first visit. She would do everything she
could to please Sara. Somehow she must get the girl to like her, trust
her, then, maybe, there would be a break
through. Somehow, Sara would prove that death, at least for some, was
not the end.
* * *
“You don’t want to scare her,” advised Thelma as they sat in front of
the apartment in the cooling evening.
“You have to find out what she’s interested in.” Rachel added,
lighting another cigarette.
In the dark, Zelda could see her friends as they had been, not as they
were. The wrinkles and ugly expressions were smoothed. Their profiles
and voices distinguished them. There were no children in the building
now. Hopefully they could find one of their own to rent Grace’s
This is how Zelda had come to this little ’shetl’. When the Liebers
moved, the possibility the two bedroom flat would be an invitation to
a family, had the women frantic. Rachel had asked the Rabbi and he had
Why did one old lady need two bedrooms?
She had a job in design and worked from home. She had been welcomed
into the building as if a queen. Older women, who lived through
depression and war and fear and death and loss wanted quiet and the
companionship of others who didn’t need conversations, (be they in
English or Yiddish) annotated. Zelda was one of them. In her
seventies, married, widowed, remarried, divorced, with no children to
visit. They, and other women members of Beth Shalom, had formed a book
club and Bridey Murphy had been a popular selection. This was the
second time the club was reading it, and they were all alert for signs
that they were here before.
Leah, asked for the ‘evidence’ again.
“How many times do I got to say it?” Zelda was not at all annoyed.
With so little in their lives every oddity was talked to death.
“When Sara was three she was singing an Edith Piaf song, one of the
early ones. Then, when she was fourteen, Grace asked her to pass the
zaltz in French and the girl did it without thinking. Grace said that
as long as you don’t make a big deal of it, the spirit inside of Sara
will ‘remember’ but when you alert her to it, it’s like the fourteen
year old memories overwhelm the ones from a previous life.”
“So what you plan to do?” Leah asks.
“I’m thinking about it.” Zelda replied.
“You could say Grace wanted her to know some of the old things and
talk to her about them. Grace had a very interesting life. Not that
anyone cares about that now. All they care about is hula hoops.”
“Show her the magic table.” Rachel said pointing a finger and nodding
her head as if a judge sending someone to the gallows.
The magic table had been brought from the old country by Grace’s Aunt
Yetta. Yetta had left everything to Grace when she died in 1921. The
table was small and flimsy, if it was left on the street, only garbage
men would touch it. Painted black a century ago, it had faded into an
ashy greyness, but the top, inlaid with thin squares of mica was
shiny. Each square covered a secret compartment in the table, but one
had to know the different tiny levers to push to open them. The table
had travelled over the ocean full of jewellery, precious papers,
strange items that had meanings lost.
Zelda didn’t know all the secrets, she could only open one box where
Grace had left her safety deposit key. All the women knew of that
table and that single ‘formula’ to open the compartment which housed
the key. This meant none of them or all of them could take the key.
They were thinking of the key.
“If she’s a ‘menche’ she gets the key, if she’s one of those stupid
girls, better she don’t get it.” Leah decided.
“What Grace have in the deposit box?” Selma asked.
“Maybe money?” Rachel always stated the obvious.
“Sara’ll come tomorrow and I hope she’s a nice girl.” Zelda yawned,
signalling it was probably time for them to return to their
* * *
It was clear Sara didn’t want to be in an old lady’s apartment. Zelda
had woken at five to start cooking so at twelve, when the girl
arrived, there’d be a feast.
“I’m not hungry,” the girl said looking around the room as if it was a
Zelda was extremely neat, but had left the Bridey Murphy on the coffee
table along with a book about reincarnation. Sara paid no attention to
“Would you like a drink?” Zelda asked moving to the kitchen.
“No,” Sara barked.
Zelda had never raised a child but had enough experience to recognise
the dog in the manger attitude.
“Here’s the ten dollars,” the girl said jabbing the bill at her as if a knife.
The old woman had no time for games; “Why are you so miserable? Am I
taking you away from something? What would you be doing if you weren’t
“I don’t know.” Sara snapped.
“Your dear Aunt wanted me to tell you about her life.” Zelda tried. “I
have to fulfil the promise. Whether you like me or not or want to be
here or not, for ten weeks, for only two hours every week, I would
tell you about her life. She’s your aunt, it’s your history.”
Sara made one of those nauseas faces teenagers are so adept at. Zelda
decided not to talk to her or respond, simply to tell Grace’s story.
Plunge in, and hope there was a brain inside that teased rat’s nest of
“Although your people come from Poland and Norway, Grace was born in France.”
The curiosity on the girl’s face meant her parents, like so many
assimilationists, pretended they came over on the Mayflower. Realizing
despite herself, Sara was interested, Zelda slowed her story and
continued. She didn’t remember everything Grace had told her. Grace
had never narrated her life, she shared when it was appropriate, bits
here, incidents there. If Zelda had made a plan she would have been
able to tell the story with more precision. However, she had launched
herself and would continue. What she didn’t know she invented,
stealing from other lives she had touched, memories and the basic
knowledge of what Europe was like before the First World War.
Sara’s disinterest and aloofness evaporated. The girl was listening,
drinking in a time and place gone forever with intensity. Zelda was
almost frightened by it. The two hours ended quickly. Sara didn’t want
to leave, but Zelda knew that to get her back, to keep her focus, she
must behave as if there was no urgency.
When the girl had gone from the apartment, in flocked Rachel and Leah
and Thelma. They ate the food and drank the coffee, more than certain
that Sara wasn’t hearing a story but the old soul within her was
grabbing at identity.
“The pictures! The pictures!” harped Leah, “get the pictures, see if
she recognizes the pictures!”
Grace had hundreds of photographs, they set about sorting them. Leah
suggested they put them in an album.
“Listen, my niece has old pictures, I’ll borrow them, and see if we
can use some of them.” Rachel supplied.
“France–who comes from France?” Thelma asked the walls, then, “Sophie!
Her family came from where? Nice? Near Nice?”
“Yes! We have to get old photos of France–!” They exclaimed, and the
four, with more energy then they had exhibited for the past thirty
years, set about running down every person they knew who might have
such pictures or memorabilia.
On Saturday Night, instead of sitting out side, they examined Zelda’s apartment.
“You don’t want it look like a museum.” Selma indicated.
“Move the photos into your workroom so it looks like you have them for
a purpose,” sagely intoned Leah. Zelda was so nervous on Sunday
morning it was as if she had a date. She cooked, not as much as
before, and cleaned what was already clean, and waited for Sara.
* * *
When the girl entered, there was an ambiguity. In one way, Zelda could
see that she had enjoyed the stories, but in another, it was as if she
didn’t want to be caught enjoying them. Zelda, who had tried to chase
her anxiety with a cigarette, quickly stubbed it out.
“Mind if I smoke?” asked fourteen year old Sara.
Zelda knew the ‘right’ answer. She was supposed to ask if her parents
knew she smoked, if she had permission to smoke, all the awful little
laws which apply to children.
“Here, use this ashtray. It was Grace’s.” Sara beamed, almost
infatuated. How eagerly she took a cigarette from her pack of Kools.
To maintain the budding conspiracy Zelda imparted;
“I thought you were dying for a cigarette the last time, but didn’t mention it.”
“Thanks.” Sara smiled, hungrily sucking on the cork.
“You want coffee?” Zelda offered.
“Yes, thanks.” Sara relaxed onto the sofa, and began to ask questions
about what Zelda had told her last week. Did the questions betray
Were there topics and items not mentioned that Sara’s old soul was supplying?
Zelda didn’t know. Her memory wasn’t what it used to be, so she
couldn’t be sure if she had told Sara about the pickle vendor or not.
After the coffee and cigarette, Zelda led her into the work room where
they could go over the photographs. Sara picked up each of the black
and white images and studied them. Was she simply amusing herself, or
was she seeing/remembering?
Teenage girls with teased rat’s nest heads don’t sit and look at
photographs of their grandmother’s world with such quietude. Zelda,
afraid her nervousness would ruin the moment, moved into the other
room, poured more coffee for herself, looked out of the window. She
didn’t want to leave Sara too long, so pretended she had only gone to
get the photos borrowed; the one’s she promised never to let out of
When Zelda entered the workroom, Sara turned to her, pointing at a photo;
“She looks familiar.” Quickly Zelda approached and observed the image
of a woman who peered from behind a shop window.
“I think that’s your grandmother.” She replied. Sara stared at the
photo. The resemblance was striking. Anna’s nose was bigger and she
had been older when it was taken, but it could be looking into mirror.
“So that’s your evidence, huh?” Said Rifka Goldberg, exhaling
cigarette smoke into the air as they sat outside on their chairs.
Rifka was a ’semi-regular’. Her daughter, who lived a few blocks away,
was her usual contact. Rifka often left her apartment in the mornings,
spent the day with her daughter, returned home in the evenings, too
tired to socialize.
Although she’d heard the Sara story before Zelda’s incursion, and
though she’d given no opinion, this Sunday night, the night after
Sara’s identification with the photograph, she felt impelled to speak.
“Look, you girls need something to do. Why don’t you volunteer to roll
bandages or read to the sick or make rag dolls? Hmmm? Look at your
folly. A baby is singing. I’ve raised lots of babies, my daughter is
on her fourth. They sing. It can sound like French, it can sound like
Russian, but what it is, is gibberish. So scratch that off. Now asking
for the salt in French isn’t so far from English as to be impossible
to understand, and further, it’s salt. If I point in the general
direction, you’ll pass me the salt. We all use salt. And the
photograph? It’s her grandmother, it looks just like her. She saw her
face. What is the super natural reincarnation heebie jeebie about
* * *
The women were silent, looking everywhere but at Rifka.
“So I’m a spoilsport. So?” Rifka stabbed, stubbing out her cigarette.
“I have to go in now. Goodnight.” And she closed her chair and carried
The women were embarrassed. The darkness hid blushes. The silence went
on. Rachel broke it;
“So did you see the price that goniff Silverberg is charging for his
nectarines? He should rot in prison.”
“Excuse me.” said Zelda, folding up and going in.
She knew they would talk about her behind her back, pretending they
weren’t as convinced as she was that Sara was the reincarnated spirit
of some one else. When she reached into her apartment she couldn’t do
more than sit on the rocker and cry. She felt so foolish, so old. When
there was a knock at the door she knew it would be one of them, but
didn’t want to answer. As she hadn’t locked the door, she didn’t have
to. It was Rachel.
“I come for a good cup of tea,” she said, moving to the stove,
chattering about good tea and the price of nectarines, and that she
was thinking of getting a television set but wasn’t sure, giving Zelda
the time she needed to dry her tears and gain composure.
“So I use your good china. Live a little. What are you saving it for?
To give to people who like melmac?” As Rachel fit her bulk onto the
Queen Anne chair, (taken from Grace’s apartment as were a number of
nice pieces, for who among her family would appreciate quality?)
“Zeldalah, every week you have a nice young girl who is interesting in
the old days come and visit. She doesn’t come for you to baby sit her
brats, she doesn’t come to borrow money, she doesn’t come to sell you
anything, she comes. She comes and she listens, and she looks at old
pictures, and when she grows up and gets married and has children,
knock wood, she will know she came from somewhere.”
Zelda sipped the tea through a sugar cube and felt better.
“Anyway, before the others come to bother you, I’ll go over to Thelma
and watch her television.”
Rachel was right. Zelda decided not to share Sara with anyone. Not to
talk about her any more. There was rain that week so there was no
reason to sit in front of the building, and as she decided to clean
her house, no reason for anyone to sit in her apartment.
When one is old, cleaning takes a very long time. Everything has to be
removed from a cabinet, parked just so, then the cabinet has to be
carefully moved from the wall, and sweeping and mopping, and then the
day is over, so the next day, it’s cleaning the shelves, and that day
is over. Then it’s carefully dusting and wiping down the treasures,
and the next day is over. Then it’s putting everything back.
And by that time it’s Friday and the need to shop and cook and get
ready for Shabbos, and go to Synagogue and schmooze, and come home.
Then it’s Saturday, Synagogue, then home and sleep, so to get up on
Sunday and start to cook and clean and wait for Sara.
* * *
When Sara entered on Sunday, her eyes fell on the Magic Table. It was
usually kept on the other side of the cabinet, but it had been moved
to the middle of the room and not replaced. Sara went to it as if a
magnet and she iron.
Zelda watched her.
Sara touched it here and there, and suddenly a compartment opened, not
the one with the key. Zelda was about to say something, but didn’t,
quietly sliding into her rocker. This is how it is, she thinks. This
is how it would be. Tiny memories, rising like bubbles to the surface.
Distracted memories, forbidden memories. Zelda smiled; this is my
from the January 2010 Edition of the Jewish Magazine