Consulate |

Jacob's Mother

by Rachel Shalita

edited by Rachel Morgenstern-Clarren

Translated from the Hebrew by Yardenne Greenspan

Jacob’s mother is in the best retirement home Jacob and his sister could find. We did our best, they said. One weekend after another we traveled to retirement homes all over the country to find you the most dignified place. They had lots of things to consider: it couldn’t be too far, because we, you know, would come visit you anywhere, but the little ones are harder to drag along to visit their grandmother; it had to have a nursing unit included, because you won’t always be so light on your feet, it happens to everyone, there’s no shame in it; it had to offer medical care, a lawn, and social activities, everything an old woman needs when she is pulled out of the home she lived in for fifty years, told to take only the bare necessities, because the room there is small, you don’t want it to be too cluttered, and who needs all this stuff you’ve been hoarding, anyway. That stuff you’ve been hoarding meant Arye’s sweaters, still in the closet, his wedding day suit, already riddled with holes, and his “tunics.” That’s what he called them, tunics, not shirts, and he loved them so much. He wasn’t a smart dresser, you couldn’t say that about Father, but he loved his tunics.

And then there were the children’s blankets. These children who now have children of their own, and will soon have grandchildren of their own. And all of Father’s books—how he loved the world and the geography of the world and all the different peoples who lived in it and their customs and holidays. And there were her dresses, of course—wool, cotton. What are they good for anyway? It’s been forever since you’ve taken off that blue robe with the purple flowers and that crumbling sweater vest. What do you need all this for?

She sat in the leather armchair Arye had managed to buy for watching TV before he had the stroke, after which he no longer went anywhere; she, watching them pulling her clothes out of the closet, shoving them into black trash bags as if they were dead bodies, setting the trash bags in the narrow stairwell. She’d been climbing those stairs ever since the house was built, in 1948, right in the middle of the war. With no trouble, she would climb all the way to the third floor. She didn’t mind the climb—her balcony was the highest in the neighborhood, and she got the best air in Tel Aviv. She couldn’t see the sea from her balcony, yet she had a great view of Jaffa, the sand dunes, and even Zablawi’s orchards.

But now she no longer walks up and down. She would live on the ground floor, they said, surrounded by large lawns, watered and manicured, you wouldn’t believe the gardening work they do there, and flowers, and in general, everything is so clean and tidy. It’s almost impossible to find such a pretty place, so close by, and within our budget. You’ll walk out the door and breathe fresh air. It’ll be like living in the country.

The room is bigger than she’d imagined, though when she moved in she was more preoccupied with the home she was leaving than with the home, if you could call it that, she was moving into. She had no idea what a retirement home was. Her parents had died young. She wasn’t even by their side when they died. How could she have imagined, back then, when she managed to travel to Israel with Arye on his immigration certificate, that she would never see her parents again. We were young, she said, like everybody else. We were young, and that explains everything—how we could leave them and go overseas, how we could come here, to this place we knew nothing about. We were young, we were foolish, we never thought that we too would grow old one day.

To her, the retirement home looks like a boarding school for the elderly, with those lawns, and the dining room, the activities, and the instructors. The difference is the instructors here wear white coats like doctors, and adhere to a strict schedule. Each thing has its time: meals, lectures, dances—all these activities she’s only heard of but has yet to see with her own eyes. And the medication has a schedule, too. Jacob explained there was no choice, they had to stick to a schedule, there are so many people here.

Tenants, she corrected him. They call us tenants.

She is worried about the home she left behind. Who would live there now that she is gone? Jacob and his sister don’t give her any clear answers. We haven’t decided yet, they say. But she knows. She heard them discussing a renovation, and she imagines that it has already been done. Pulling together bits of sentences, she gathers that her home is now divided into two small apartments leased to two students who don’t ask for much, and that this could potentially cause problems with the municipality, but that a friend of Jacob’s showed them how to make the two apartments look like one if anyone came around to ask questions. She wonders which of them now sleeps in her bed. Sometimes she thinks it’s a male student and other times that it’s a female student, or perhaps both of them sleep together.

She had so many linens there, folded one on top of the other in the wooden wall cabinet that Arye’s friend’s brother-in-law, a master carpenter, built for them. He came to their home every day for a whole week until it was finished. They’d spent so long arguing which color to paint the new cabinet, she and Arye. Finally the carpenter convinced them that light green was very fashionable, and chose an almost yellow shade of green that lit up the room, so he said, and she wondered why a bedroom had to be lit up, but told Arye that the color was pretty and modern and that even their grandchildren would be able to enjoy this cabinet. The linens were arranged in neat piles, tied with a red ribbon. Two piles of linens. What did they do with them? Did they give them to the students, or did they throw them out, like the other things she’d left behind, because they had told her to?

Here she has new synthetic floral sheets. Jacob’s sister bought them for her to celebrate the move to the new home, as she called the place that Jacob’s mother preferred to call her exile. Mothers make efforts to figure out what their children like, buying them one present after the other, getting nothing but frowns in return. But children never bother to figure out what their parents like. She hates sleeping in a flower bed. How could they not understand? Linens should be white. Maybe with embroidered initials, but of white cotton nonetheless. The kind you iron. Now she folds herself into red flowers every night. Rather than the sheets being cheerful, as Jacob’s sister called them, they only make her sad. Flowers should have a fragrance. Flowers don’t belong on beds with sheets, duvet covers, and two pillowcases. Cheerful. The drapes are also cheerful, and so are the towels. And the façade of the building is painted in cheerful colors as well. The approaching holiday will be celebrated cheerfully, with cheerful balloons decorating the dining hall. Sometimes this place is less like a boarding school and more like a kindergarten for the elderly, with musicians playing holiday tunes, and everybody receiving goodie bags—like a birthday party.

She still doesn’t understand why she had to leave her home. People forget to close the faucet sometimes, it happens. The country won’t run out of water so quickly. And leaving a pot on the stove? That happened to her even when she was a young woman. But saying she called them to help her with every little thing, that she can’t take care of herself, that’s taking it too far. Sure, it’s hard for her to talk to the plumber, or even to leave a message on his voicemail. If he answers the phone that’s fine, but when an automated voicemail message answers she can never figure out when to speak, when he would hear her message, when he would call her back. But she still remembers Jacob’s number by heart, and there are plenty of other things she still remembers. If they want her to, she can describe the whole way she traveled with Arye on a ship to Haifa. Would they call that losing her memory?

Why don’t you step outside, Jacob’s sister keeps telling her. See, everybody’s sitting on the benches out front. Talk to them, meet some people. The social worker keeps telling them how important interpersonal communication is during old age. Communication, she says, determines quality of life, and not only that, but also longevity. And thus, she places the responsibility for their mother’s life on Jacob and his sister, seeing as how their mother refuses to step out of her room and mingle with the other tenants.

She doesn’t say I won’t go outside. On the contrary, she keeps saying, I’ll go outside tomorrow. I can’t today, but I will tomorrow morning, don’t worry. It isn’t unusual, the social worker says. Some tenants like to go outside and meet new people, while others prefer to keep to themselves. But it has an effect, as I’ve explained before. Your word would mean a lot here, she tells Jacob and his sister. She knows you. She listens to you. That’s not exactly true, Jacob says, but we’ll try. Then the social worker adds that they should all keep in mind that their mother still hasn’t completed her adjustment period. How long does that last? Jacob’s sister asks, knowing that the answer will be that it’s individual. And that is exactly what the social worker says. And do some people never adjust? Jacob asks. The social worker looks straight at him and says, Mr. Frank, why think of the worst case scenario? She’ll adjust. She’s been isolated at home for so long, she’s forgotten what it’s like to be with people.

A month after his mother moves into the retirement home, Jacob comes to visit alone for the first time. His sister has gone to London, leaving him explicit instructions: speak to the social worker, check if their mother is sending her clothes to be washed, if she’s doing her dishes, make sure there’s food in the fridge, check that she’s showering.

His mother is on the chair when he comes in, wearing a floral blouse over a white undershirt and under a pink woolen robe. She smiles at him. Mira’leh just left, she says. You’re such good children, visiting your mother.

Mira’leh’s in London, Jacob says, not sure his mother can hear him. She’s still smiling, her eyes not focusing on him. Are you tired, Mother, he asks.

She says, would you like something to eat? But she has no intention of getting up to make him some food.

Jacob sits across from her, saying nothing.

Tell me about the children, she says. You never talk about them. How’s Noa? How’s Yiftach?

Noa and Yiftach are Mira’leh’s children, Jacob says.

Later, when he talks to the social worker, she says there might be some kind of cognitive impairment. She really should go out and talk to people. She must have some personal interaction, otherwise she’ll regress quite quickly.

When Jacob returns to his mother to say goodbye she turns to face him and says they have to take care of Dovidl, make sure he graduates before the war. He knows who Dovidl is. He’s heard about him all his life: Dovidl, his mother’s younger brother, their uncle from America. They called him Uncle David. The Uncle came to his bar mitzvah and gave him $250 in crisp notes. They must not have seen each other in the ten years since Jacob’s father died.

Jacob waits for his sister to return so they can discuss their mother. She’s losing her mind, he tells her when they meet, speaking about Uncle David as if he’s still a little boy back in Europe, calling him Dovidl.

To his surprise, his sister says they have to call Uncle David to come and see her before she fades away completely. Actually, she says, it’s a good idea for him to come anyway. He’s more professional than all these social workers we’ve been seeing, who can’t teach us a thing we haven’t read on Google anyway.

How’s he supposed to come here? Jacob asks. A man like him, with all his patients, he needs advance notice.

He’ll come, says his sister. If we tell him it’s only a matter of time, he’ll be on the next plane. She’s his older sister. He adores her. He should see her now. Maybe he’ll be able to convince her to go outside and mingle rather than lose more of herself each day.

His sister is right. Uncle David arrives within less than a month. But during this month Jacob’s mother already asks Jacob twice who he is and what he’s doing in her room. She recognizes Mira’leh easily, but Jacob’s children have been entirely erased from her mind. Noa and Yiftach are the only grandchildren she ever asks about.

David, who immigrated to America right after the war, at age thirteen or fourteen, never accepted Jacob’s parents’ invitation to come to Israel and join the small family they’d started. A Jewish American couple adopted him immediately after the war, and he saw himself as an American. He barely remembered his older sister from childhood. When she left for Palestine, already married, he was no older than five or six. But back home everyone sang her praises, reporting each step in her adjustment to the new country she’d described in long, detailed letters before the war broke out. She wrote about the apartment on a high floor, with a view of the dunes, about the new furniture specially made by a carpenter, about the radio they’d bought, around which, later on, they would huddle along with their neighbors, who would come over to listen as the U.N. voted in favor of establishing the State of Israel.

The day before David’s arrival, Jacob tries to prepare his mother for a meeting with her younger brother, who is now over eighty years old. You won’t believe who’s here to see you, he tells her. When she doesn’t answer he adds, David is coming. Then he corrects himself, Dovidl, he says in Yiddish, but that doesn’t move her.

She sits there, staring at him with faraway eyes. He sees a white plastic chair against the window. Do you sit there, Mother? he asks.

She continues to stare and says, it’s not nice to stare out the window. It’s impolite. Dovidl always wants to look outside, and Mama won’t let him.

Then who sits there, looking out the window? Jacob asks. You?

She stands up heavily, dragging the chair and placing it by the sofa. You mustn’t, it isn’t nice, she says.

The meeting between Uncle David and Jacob’s mother takes place the following day, but Jacob and his sister aren’t there to witness it. That’s David’s preference. He visits her every day during his week in Israel. It’s unclear if she can recognize him, he reports to them, but she speaks Yiddish to him. She even asked if he’d come by plane or ship. She’s not all gone, he tells them. She’s got big holes in her memory, but some areas are, as of yet, undamaged.

On the weekend he goes on a tour of Masada while Jacob and his sister go to see their mother. From outside the room they think they hear the TV, but Jacob says it must be coming from the neighbor’s room.

No, his sister says. Listen carefully, her TV is on.

When they go in they don’t see her in her normal spot, in the armchair Father had bought, which here looks so cumbersome. They turn down the volume on the television and call out, Mother, Mother.

She doesn’t answer.

They hear sounds of showering from the bathroom. The lights are on in there, and they can hear her moving about heavily. A long time later, she opens the door, stepping out of the bathroom in her pink robe, clutching a mysterious bundle wrapped in a large, cheerfully colored towel. She is not at all surprised to see them.

Jacob and his sister don’t understand at first, but when their mother comes closer they see what she’s holding: a rubber baby doll, wrapped in the towel.

Close the window, Jacob’s mother tells Jacob. There’s a draft. She puts the towel down on the bed, opens it carefully, wipes down the wet doll, and starts dressing it in dry clothes.

What is this, Mother, Jacob’s sister can’t help but ask.

He’ll learn how to use the potty soon, he just needs to grow up a little, says Jacob’s mother, putting a diaper on the doll, then adding wool pants, a thick blue shirt, and a green beanie hat on the doll’s still wet hair.

Where did he come from? Jacob asks.

Dovidl brought him. Dovidl knew where he was this whole time, and now he’s brought him to me.

Who is he? asks Jacob.

It’s Moyshe’leh, she says.

Jacob whispers to his sister, have you noticed how everything makes sense? She’s got an answer for every question.

Once the doll is dressed, she takes it in her arms and seats it in her lap. She lowers her head to the doll, humming a lullaby she used to sing to Jacob when he was a child: hast ghehat a yingaleh

I can’t watch this, says Jacob’s sister. She’s completely nuts. Look at her. Is he insane, giving her this doll?

Hold on, says Jacob, but his sister storms out, slamming the door behind her.

Jacob takes a seat across from his mother, watching her. He looks at the old age spots mottling her arms, stains of light and shadow on translucent skin, murky. He watches as she kisses the rubber doll with her toothless mouth. His mother, an elderly child, has lost all shame. She’s kissing a rubber doll, whispering to it, Moyshe’leh, Moyshe’leh.

Who’s Moyshe’leh? He asks her.

He’s back, she answers. Dovidl brought him. Dovidl knew where he was. He didn’t die. He was in America this whole time.

On the way home Jacob’s sister sits silently beside him in the car. He keeps quiet, too. Before he drops her off, she says, I’ll talk to him about it. He’s crazy, making our mother nuts.

But Uncle David pays no mind when Jacob’s sister tells him the exact same thing to his face at the lobby of his hotel. There are studies about this, he says, at the New Castle hospital. They give dolls to patients to take care of. They’re getting phenomenal results with patients suffering from dementia.

What kind of results, asks Jacob’s sister. Making a mockery of them without their noticing? And what if she still has moments of clarity? What will she do when she suddenly finds the doll in her bed? You haven’t thought this through. Then she adds, you’ve acted irresponsibly.

But Uncle David already knows everything Jacob’s sister is about to say. I know all of these objections, he says. Some family members are deterred by it, and that’s perfectly normal, but in these situations I prefer to consider the patients rather than their families. Look how happy she is now.

Who’s Moyshe’leh, asks Jacob.

She never told you about Moyshe’leh? Uncle David answers with a question. Ask her. It’ll be interesting to see how she answers you.

But she doesn’t answer. All she says is that he’s alive, even though she was convinced he’d died long ago. I was a child, she says. When the bed is crowded you turn over, even in your sleep. Then she looks up, and for the first time since she moved to the retirement home she looks Jacob in the eyes. It was so cold that the babies shared the bed with us. I was a child. In my sleep.

Tel Aviv, April 2016