Mama’s Private Place

By Florence Stadlen

         “Alright, little fish, open your eyes.”

           A light kiss on closed eyelids, a love-sniff where neck meets ear, a nuzzle at the neck.

         “Up, up, children.  It’s time for school and I daren’t be late for the Sabbath.  So much to do, so much to do:  Will I ever be finished in time?”

         I sneak a peek and quickly shut my eyes again.  Stretching lazily, I taunt Mama with my Friday morning languor, trusting her for yet another kiss, another loving sniff.  I know it is Friday.  Friday is the one morning Mama rushes us out of bed, voice tense, urgent.  All other days her whole being expands while we dawdle and delay the moment we finally rise stretching from warm beds.  “Soon, soon enough,” she tells impatient Papa who always wants us up, up, now, this minute.  “Soon there will be no dawdling for them. Let them sleep another minute now, another five, another ten.   Soon enough they will have their own little ones and that will be the end of sleep for them.”

         My nose, too, tells me it is Friday.  Yeast acting on flour.  Mama bustles from our bedroom into the kitchen.  Now the wooden spoon scrapes the sides of the mixing bowl.  Soon Mama’s knife tap-taps down the noodle board.  Clickety-click-click-click, the racing knife cuts tracks of finely cut noodles to form lacy patterns down the length of the board.

         “Children, Children,” she calls our names in loving diminutives.  Now there is an edge to her voice.  “Wash up, wash up, wash the sleepy-winkers from your eyes.”

2.

         My little sister and I make our leisurely way into the kitchen.  Mama rushes us through breakfast and out the door, heaving a sigh as we reluctantly depart.  Now she will get on with it; clean house, bake challah, prepare and cook the Sabbath food, for tomorrow truly will be a day of rest.

         By the time we come back from school not only the kitchen but the whole flat smells of Friday:  heavy scent of furniture oil and brass polish, combined with friendly odors of freshly baked goods.  The house has a special Sabbath look.  Windows twinkle in the late afternoon sun.  Kitchen sink and kitchen floor are scrubbed, fresh newspaper lining the floor under the sink to catch damp footprints and splashes.  The kitchen table is piled high with goods: the challah shining golden brown and seeded: in the bread bowl onion rolls and birdie shapes, braided breads and round coiled loaves.  The coffee cake stands half-a-foot high, waiting for the first cut to expose the secrets of its “nests,” browned treasure of nuts mixed with cinnamon sugar, raisins light and dark.

          As we make that first triangular cut and dig around for buried gold, Mama wrings her hands in mock despair at the ravages we commit, all the while rejoicing in our greed.  We smack our lips and, raising our eyes, see into the dining room.  The white damask tablecloth shimmers on the tablecloth shimmers on the table.  Six brass candlesticks rubbed golden, stand gleaming on the brass tray, six tall white candles waiting to be lit.  The gefilte fish platter decorated with cooked carrot slices, is in place beside the candles, two challah loaves resting ceremonially beneath the white satin bread-cloth embroidered in cobalt blue.  Horse-radish, fresh-rubbed, beet-red as mama’s hand, makes nostrils flare, brings water to the eyes.

                  Mama rushes through the final chores. She has had her bath.  Now she clips her fingernails.  I watch, filled with awe as Mama sweeps together and then wraps the shards in a piece of paper, to dispose of with care against the Day of Judgment when her shade must roam the earth to gather together these cuttings of a lifetime.

         An hour passes and tension builds.  Mama tastes the food for tonight’s supper and tomorrow’s lunch.  She strains the soup, removing chicken from pot to ready it for its second round.  Spreading over the half-cooked bird a garlicky tomato sauce, she places it in the oven to brown.  Presto!    It is Roast Chicken.

         Now Mama draws out the tin tray from its weekday resting place between stove and wall.  Circular cutouts expose the gas burners.  Since the advent of piped-in gas, no longer does Mama need a Shabbos Goy to light the flame.  The gas stays lit – one burner only – for the entire Sabbath.  Mama turns down the gas to a tiny flame – not too low, not too high, only enough to keep the chill off the food.  The Sabbath will be a day of rest but not great comfort.  It will be rather, a day of spiritual exhilaration.

         From the corner of her eye, Mama glances at the clock.  Slowly now she looks around her.  Everything done?  Anything forgotten?  Each and every Friday it is always the same.  I feel the tension in her.  The urgency – her excitement – transmit themselves to me.  It is time to light the candles.  Has she made it in time?  In time!  In time!  In good time.  Neither too early nor too late.  God forbid too late – to desecrate the Sabbath.  Nor too early – to make other Jewish wives late.

4

         Mama’s thin brown hair she has pulled back in a tightly wound roll.

Her cheeks flush.  Her eyes shine. Her crisp, clean apron covers a freshly laundered dress.  The lace scarf sits folded on the back of a chair, waiting to cover her head when she prays over the candles.  The Sabbath is all but here and Mama, like a bride, stands eager to meet it: purified, joyful, proud…. ready.

         I stand in the doorway, brown eyes watching.  Mama slowly covers her head.  She strikes a match and lights the first candle.  The remaining candles she lights from the first. “Baruch Attah Adonai, Blessed art Thou God,” she whispers.  The moment for which I wait each Friday is almost here.  My throat begins to catch and close as, still whispering, Mama stretches out her hand to make circles round the fresh, sputtering flames.  One circle – two – three – four.  Slowly she carries her palms towards her face, covering eyes, nose and mouth.  Mama disappears; she is a whisper only.  The whisper changes quality.  Is it whisper-turned-to-sob?  More whispering as Mama buries her head deeper into her hands.  Fear clutches me – a terrible loneliness.  Mama, where are you?  What is it?  Where are you?  Come back, Mama, come back.

         I choke the words – leave them fluttering inside me, unsaid, while Mama stays there in her own private place behind her hands. She stays there a long, interminable minute.  Then, slowly, Mama’s hands leave her face, descending to her sides.  She returns. Her eyes slightly reddened, her lips form a thin, tremulous smile.  “Gut Shabbos, Gut Shabbos.”  Relief rolls over me in warm waves.

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