Wednesday, February 22, 2012

An Old Dog: A Short Story

Vivian smiled at her reflection in the mirror. Not bad for eighty-three years, she thought. She turned her head and surveyed her bedroom in the sixty-year-old Jerusalem apartment. It was not doing too badly, either. She smiled again. Who would have thought things would have turned out so well twenty years earlier?
Her hand shook as she tried to cut open the bag of milk and she cut her finger instead.
“Oh,” she groaned in frustration. She stanched the blood with toilet paper and returned to the kitchen.
“Vivian.” Her husband entered the tiny apartment as she broke open an egg and checked it for a blood spot.
“Good morning, Stan.” She did not turn from the kitchen counter.
“Shimon,” her husband corrected.
Stan?” she repeated.

“What?” he sighed, defeated again.
“Did you get the Jerusalem Post?”
 “It’s right here.” He was full of energy having been up already for a couple of hours and had walked to the synagogue, said his morning prayers, and sat in on a class.
Vivian took the paper without comment and quickly put breakfast on the table. Eagerly she opened the Post to the New York Times excerpt. Shimon looked around the little room as he sipped his coffee. It was sparkling clean and sunny but the kitchen was not the cheerful room it should have been. That was probably due to the unhappiness of the woman sitting across for him.
“What happened to your finger?” he asked as he buttered his bread.
“Your finger. There’s blood. What happened?”
“Oh.” Vivian put the paper down and looked intently at her husband. “I cut it opening the milk. Such a crazy country! They can’t put milk in a carton or bottle? Every time I hold a bag I feel as if I am getting ready to give someone an IV.” Vivian shuddered. “And the eggs. Half of them have blood in them. And the bugs. Everywhere there’s bugs, the flour, the barley, even the rice. They never spray here in this country?”
Shimon’s face clouded with impatience. Vivian noticed and decided to let up.
“What are your plans for the day?”
“I need to straighten out a few things at the bank and then I thought I’d go to the Russian Center to help out. You’re going to ulpan, aren’t you?”
“I don’t know,” Vivian sighed. “There hardly seems to be any point to it. You can’t teach an old dog new tricks and if anyone is an old dog, it’s me.”
“Now, Vivian,” Shimon spoke gallantly. “You don’t look a day over fifty.”
“Maybe not,” she snapped back, “but I feel like I’m every one of my sixty-three years. And sixty-three is mighty late to start learning a new language, to say nothing of adjusting to a whole new life.
Before Shimon could answer she had her face buried in the paper. Sixty-three was too old for her to adjust but for Shimon, at age seventy, it was a breeze. It all seemed terribly unfair.
As frustrated and resentful as she felt now, there was a time when she would have been eager to make a home in Israel. Years ago, when she first met Stan, he had impressed her with a tale of sacrifice. He had been all set as a youth of eighteen to start a life in Palestine. However the situation in Europe continued to deteriorate and he was asked to turn over his hard-won entry certificate to a German Jew. 
“I could never have lived with myself if I hadn’t,” Stan told Vivian when he described the death camp he had helped liberate as an American soldier. She had been young and pretty then, always laughing a laugh that reminded Stan of a waterfall. 
They had been married only two years when the British left Palestine and Jews no longer needed entry certificates. Vivian had thought they would be among the first to move to Israel but she had reckoned without Stan’s strong sense of family responsibility. His father had just suffered a heart attack and needed more help with the business. Once he passed away Stan had his mother to worry about and then his widowed sister. Then there were the tuition, dental, and medical bills. Before they knew it there were the weddings to pay for, a son-in-law in Kollel, a son’s medical practice to help start. And then Stan had chest pains. The doctors weren’t sure if he had a mild heart attack or just a scare. Stan was sure of one thing, though. Enough was enough. He was going to move to Israel. 
Vivian had been outraged. All her children and grandchildren lived within a fifty mile radius of her house, to say nothing of the life she had made for herself. Stan was adamant about moving, certain that once in Eretz Yisroel, Vivian would be happy they had come. Two months had passed since their plane had landed. If anything, Vivian was more resentful than ever.
“If you’re not going to ulpan,” Stan suggested tentatively, “maybe you’d like to come with me to the Russian Center?”
To his surprise Vivian agreed. As they walked to the center Shimon explained what he did there.
“Mainly it’s translating all sorts of forms. Most of the older Russians don’t know any Hebrew but they remember Yiddish from their childhood. They remember some Yiddishkeit, too and are eager to learn more.”
Vivian was almost enthusiastic as they entered the center. The place was rather dingy with cheerless, green walls. It was brightened by the colorfully clad social worker whose face broke into a big smile when she saw Shimon.
“Good morning,” Shimon smiled charmingly, “You look lovely today. This fine-looking woman here is my wife. She speaks a good Yiddish.”
“Wonderful!” The social worker exclaimed. “Come meet Sopha, Alex’s wife.”
Vivian immediately felt a kinship with the trim, white-haired woman. It did not take much conversation for her to discover why. Alex had pushed the move on his wife just as Shimon had done to Vivian.   
“That’s him over there,” Sopha pointed.
“That’s my husband he’s talking to,” Vivian told her.
“My husband needs help with the form for the rent subsidy.”
“Stan’s a whiz with the forms. He reads Hebrew well after all his years of learning.”
“You don’t?” Sopha asked.
Vivian shook her head. “I don’t know how he expects me to learn at my age.”
“You see Alex,” Sopha declared. “Every day he listens to the easy Hebrew news on the radio. He makes a list of the words he doesn’t understand. Then he looks them up in the dictionary and memorizes them. Every day!”
Vivian did not want to complain anymore about Stan so she changed the subject. “How’s your apartment?”
 “Crowded! We share it with our daughter, her husband, and their daughter, and grandson.”
“You’re lucky to have them here,” Vivian’s voice was wistful.
Sopha agreed. “But my son is still in Russia and his wife isn’t Jewish and they don’t want to come. I miss them.”
Vivian felt her eyes mist. “I left behind three children and twelve grandchildren.”
The two women exchanged looks of sympathy and the bond was formed.  From the corner of her eye Vivian watched Stan help others but she did not leave Sopha until he was ready to go.
“You see,” Shimon said over lunch. “There are people who have it worse than you. Sopha would love to have an apartment for just her and Alex.”
Deliberately Vivian lowered her spoonful of soup and looked at her husband angrily. “Don’t think you can lessen my pain by showing me someone else’s,” she hissed.
“If you hate it so much here,” Shimon spoke slowly, “maybe you should go back.”
“You want me to leave you?” Vivian stared at her hands and did not see the grey tinge on her husband’s face. There was a long silence and she finally raised her eyes. She did not know if his look of pain was physical or emotional, but she was not taking any chances. She refilled his water glass and ordered him to drink. He did so and his color returned.
“I don’t want you to leave me, Vivian,” he sighed. “But I am tired of all, the whines and complaints and anger. Why can’t you support me with my dream?” Shimon did not give his wife a chance to answer. “You had a dream to be a nurse and I supported you. How I supported you! How many times did I come home from work and prepare dinner so you could study for exams? How many times did I take care of the kids so you could go to evening classes? Did I ever complain? You wanted to be a nurse and I helped you. I always wanted to live in Israel and now, I am finally able, and you, of all people, want to deny me.”
“I’m sorry,” Vivian mumbled in a choked voice.
They finished their lunch is silence. Vivian was not angry, but sorrowful. Shimon was not angry either, just drained.  They went to sleep early that evening and in the morning Vivian announced she would go to ulpan. Not long after she left, Shimon received a frantic phone call from Alex. Sopha’s diabetes was acting up and they were at the hospital. He was having a terrible time communicating to the staff so Shimon told him he’s be right over. He left immediately, only taking time to leave a note for Vivian.
Ulpan had gone well that morning and when she checked the mail there were two letters from the children. Vivian entered the apartment in a positive mood and then she saw Stan’s note. Impulsively, she decided to call a cab and go to the hospital, also. Once there an American doctor helped her at the information desk and soon she was in Sopha’s room. Neither Alex nor Stan were anywhere in sight. Sopha was lying in the third bed with her face toward the window looking small and forlorn.
“Sopha,” Vivian spoke softly.
Sopha turned her head and her eyes brightened when she saw Vivian. “It was so good of you to come.”
“Where are Stan and Alex?” Vivian sat next to the bed and took Sopha’s hand in hers.
“They were here all morning but I wanted Alex to get some rest. My daughter will be coming soon.”
“I’ll stay until she comes,” Vivian squeezed Sopha’s hand. Sopha smiled in response.
“You are tired,” Vivian stated the obvious. “Try and sleep. If you need anything, I am here.”
Sopha did not need to be urged twice. Vivian took out the knitting needles and yarn she always kept in her purse. As she knit she thought about all her years of nursing. Even as a young woman her favorite floor had been geriatrics. Too bad that now, when she really understood the elderly, she was too old to get a job.
Vivian spent every afternoon with Sopha. When her friend slept Vivian found herself helping some of the other women in the room. She was adept at making beds with patients in them and her sponge baths were very gentle. Between her mornings at ulpan and her afternoons at the hospital she should have been exhausted, but she wasn’t. Shimon noticed a bounce in her step that had not been there for months. He wondered how Sopha’s release from the hospital would affect his wife’s mood and made sure to be home every day when she returned from the hospital
 “Shimon!” Vivian called to her husband as she entered the apartment.
He stood to greet her and realized that she was not aware she had finally called him by his Hebrew name.
“What are you so happy about?”
“How do you know I’m happy?” It was almost as if she was flirting with him.
“Your eyes are sparkling like diamonds.”
Vivian actually laughed. “Sopha’s going home tomorrow.”
“That is good news.”
“That’s not all.” Vivian sat on the couch and motioned for her husband to join her. “I have a job.”
“A job?”
“Well,” Vivian laughed again and Shimon beamed at the sound. “Not a paying job but the head nurse spoke to me today and asked if I could volunteer. They need extra hands on the ward and I am a good nurse. I said yes,” Vivian said a little sheepishly. “I hope you don’t mind that I didn’t ask you first.”
“No, I don’t mind at all,” Shimon said adamantly. “Not at all,” he repeated and silently offered a prayer of thanksgiving.
Things got better after that. Their oldest granddaughter came for a year of seminary, met her husband, and stayed in Israel. Her parents followed not long after and eventually the whole family made Aliyah. Vivian counted her blessings daily and often thanked Shimon for making them move to Eretz Yisroel. She, and Sopha, might have been old dogs, but they did learn new tricks. Tonight they would be together at the wedding. Vivian’s great-granddaughter was marrying Sopha’s great- grandson.

Ulpan: Hebrew language class taught in Hebrew
Eretz Yisroel: The Land of israel
Yddishkeit: the heart of Judaism
Aliyah: literally going up,  moving to Israel


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