This story is the first-place winner of the 2019 Moment Magazine-Karma Foundation Short Fiction Contest. Founded in 2000, the contest was created to recognize authors of Jewish short fiction. The 2019 stories were judged by American actor and author Max Brooks. Moment Magazine and the Karma Foundation are grateful to Brooks and to all of the writers who took the time to submit their stories. Visit momentmag.com/fiction to learn how to submit a story to the contest.
Sometimes I’m scared I’ll call my surviving daughter by her sister’s name, Becky, the one who was lost, when Talia is the one who’s still here. I made that mistake once when I was tucking Talia into bed, whispering, I love you so much, Becky, and by the time I corrected myself, Of course I know who you are, trying to make a little joke about being forgetful at my age, it was too late. And now Talia is opening my door, pushing her baby carriage like a plow over the threshold into my apartment. It takes me a while to hoist myself up to help her, and by then, she’s in the living room, trailing a swoosh of cold November air and beads of rain that drip onto the wooden floor.
“Mom.” Talia takes off her boots and raincoat, and at first she seems happy to see me, but then she grows wary. When she gives me a kiss, I can hear her inhale, trying to catch a whiff of my breath. “Mom,” she repeats. “You’re not not drinking.” Circling the room, she bends over and pulls out a bottle of Scotch that I had hidden behind some old vinyl records. I really didn’t think she would find it back there. She holds the bottle up in the air, speaking like a preacher to a room full of sinners, and proclaims, “You made your promise!” “I—” “Are you drunk or just hung over?” I shrugged. “I am—”
What? I am at a loss for words. My head hurt when I woke up, so I added a wee bit of the stuff to my black coffee; my toes feel cold, and my heart still needs some consolation. Then all plunges into quiet because if there is one thing Talia and I can agree on, it is this: I am stranded on the southern shore of Long Island, in the last years of my life. More than three decades ago, when I met her father, Morrie, he told me, Atlantic Beach is part of the package. It was right after our first kiss—cool water on my parched skin—and I would have agreed to anything. I love the beach in the summer, and in the winter we can go cross-country skiing there, too—provided there’s snow, of course—and I like the synagogue.
Morrie spoke in run-on sentences, quickly, vociferously, afraid that people would lose interest in what he had to say. It’s about thirty minutes from New York City, so if you want culture, you can get culture, and my father was on the town board, and one day, maybe, I’ll run for the board, too. The Mintz will inherit the earth, I said, and laughed at Morrie, who was almost 30, with soft fuzzy skin like an overripe peach. He had mild brown eyes, huge ears. When we met in class at the University of Massachusetts, the love that flared took us both by surprise.
And—the toughest thing—will you consider becoming a Jew? He added this in a solemn tone. It’s not so bad, you know, switching from an Easter egg hunt to searching for the hidden matzah. Morrie’s proposal did not seem so ludicrous, although I (1) was from the Berkshires, (2) liked mountains, lakes, rolling hills, forests, and (3) never wanted to live in New York. But I was also (1) a tempered Catholic, (2) a 20-plus virgin up until that night and (3) the only sister after four boys from Otis, Massachusetts. O, ’tis grand to be from Otis! My father used to sing this when he came home drunk from the Union Bar and Grill, and all I could do was hope that his good mood would last and I wouldn’t have to hide in the back of the closet.
By the time I was in college, I had figured out that the fate of almost every youngest daughter who wasn’t exceptionally pretty or lucky in almost every large Catholic family was to stay single and take care of aging parents. I wanted to avoid that.
And Morrie was, in one word, tender. In bed and out. Brought me tea and shortbread cookies starting from that first night. Had a fantastic memory, reciting all the names of minor characters on my favorite childhood TV shows. He loved studying Jewish texts, dissecting every word with me, and when we hiked up to the top of Butternut Basin, our heads grazing heaven, he said the Shehechiyanu, the prayer to thank God for creating us, sustaining us, and bringing us to right here, right now.
Morrie sanctified my heart. He helped clear away the wreckage from my childhood: my father’s belt swinging and his drinking that scared the hell out of my brothers and me and quashed my mother’s being. He made me feel like I could wipe my past clean and start all over again. For the first time, I was able to nudge away the fear and love.
It was far easier putting aside Catholicism than I supposed; I simply reminded myself that Jesus was a Jew, and his teachings were Jewish. Over the years, I grew to appreciate Judaism because it wasn’t only attending services once a week, it was what we ate and what we laughed at and how we saw the world, even the prayers that we were supposed to say after we went to the bathroom. After we got married, we moved to Atlantic Beach, and I gave birth to Talia and then Becky. Becky was ten when she was killed with my oldest brother, Sean, in an airplane he was piloting. Talia was too scared to go up with Sean, but Becky was eager, willing and fearless. It was only for a ride above the Berkshires, and that’s why I bring it up again and again. Because I had been trying so hard to obey God’s laws, and this was what I got in return? The plane crashing, barreling into the earth and bursting into flames—and Becky is gone, gone, gone. How could that not plant a seed of doubt inside me?
“Mom, I am so worried about you,” Talia is saying now, her plaintive voice pulling me back to the present. Although she is wearing a bright lemon-yellow sweatshirt, her look registers only panic. “You’ve got to cut down on the drinking.” I turn to look out the window, gazing at my neighbor’s house and his Christmas decorations that glimmer in the dreary rain. “It’s not even a week past Halloween,” Talia says. “Way too early for Santa to show up.” “You’ve got to love it when people want their place to look festive.”
Talia and I stare out into the gloom, the lights blinking on and off. When the green bulbs flash, I think, Go and tell Talia what you’re feeling. Then a cautionary yellow, and there’s calmness in my chest: I can wait before I say anything. And finally red. I should keep on pretending. I don’t want to hurt her. Losing her only sister was enough hurt.
“What, Mom?” Talia asks.
“You gave up Christmas,” Talia says.
Startled, I wonder if she can guess what I’m thinking. But how could she? When Talia lived in Williamsburg, she used to invite Morrie and me over to light Hanukkah candles with her and her friends. She made potato pancakes with homemade applesauce; we spun the top, what they call the dreidel, gambling on which letter it would fall on, and we all sang Hanukkah songs, which, I have to say, are almost as lovely as Christmas carols. She still keeps the menorah we gave her on her kitchen window sill, no matter what the season. “Wasn’t it hard to give it all up?” She looks at me, waiting for a response.
I decide I will tell her now and get it over with, but just as I’m about to explain, she strides to the kitchen sink and retrieves an empty bottle of red wine from the trash. “And this?” she scolds. “It has antioxidants.” “That’s why I bought you the carrot juice.” “Jews,” I smile, feeling inexplicably distant from the people I have called my own for more than half my life. It is akin to returning to a city you have lived in for many years and realizing it is no longer familiar. I had wanted it to sound like a harmless pun, but I can tell Talia doesn’t find it funny. I was happy a moment ago with her as we gazed at the Christmas lights, and then sad at the way they annoyed her.
She pokes around the living room again and I watch, ensconced in my favorite armchair that I shipped from Otis years ago, its upholstery bleached from the salty ocean air, the chair’s arms rubbed raw, and its clawed feet clinging like paws to the floor. Straightening out the pile of newspapers on the dining room table, Talia asks, “Can’t I bring these papers out to recycle? This place needs a thorough cleaning.” “You cleaned it right before Passover,” I say, remembering those four cups of wine, which is the best way to float through any Seder. But I have always liked Passover and the idea that Jesus celebrated the holiday, too. When I was a little girl, I used to stare at a reproduction of Da Vinci’s painting, “The Last Supper,” which my mother had hung in our dining room, wondering what it might have been like to eat at a table with Jesus. To be in the presence of God’s son. I had been a spiritual, searching child. One thing I always said about myself was that I’ve always had soul. But now I wonder if that was only an empty space within me that I’ve spent my whole life trying to fill.
“Yuck,” Talia says, swiping her fingertip through a dew-like coat of dust. “Passover was how many months ago?” “I’ll take care of it.” I pause. “But first, I need to tell you something.” I glance at the carriage, listening, trying to make sure the baby, Ron-Lee, is sleeping soundly. His name means “my joy” in Hebrew, but it sounds like it belongs to a country western singer. “You want to talk, talk,” Talia says distractedly. “Just don’t say that six is more than enough children.” “That is self-evident,” I say. “What’s wrong with creating new life? New souls? New people to love?” I think about how I am a pale, tall Celt and my grandchildren, along with my daughter, are short, plump Jews. They all look so different from me, and I fumble with my necklace and its locket with Becky’s photo inside. Becky looked like me. She joked like me. She would have understood. And now the heat rises to my face, and I don’t know if it’s from needing another drink or needing to say what I’ve come to believe. “Sometimes,” I whisper. “Sometimes, well, I still feel I’ve never stopped believing in the things I used to believe in my past.”
“What? What are you trying to tell me?”
“Talia, I was Jewish and now—”
“Is this some kind of joke? Because if it is, it’s not funny.”
“It’s not a joke.”
“You mean you still believe in—?”
“You can say his name,” I tell her. “Jesus—”
“You believe that the wine is the blood and the crackers are the body?”
It riles me to hear Talia malign transubstantiation. I should have explained more about this holy concept, I think now. “It is the idea that the physical and spiritual are intertwined. Ordinary things can be holy, far holier than they appear.” She does not reply, and I’m afraid I’ve said too much. “But you converted to Judaism so many years ago.” Talia widens her eyes, the way she looks at her older kids—Rebecca (named after Becky)-Akiva-Nathan-Ruth-Sammy—if they do something wrong. “You can’t go back,” she says. “You worked at the Hebrew school, for goodness sake. You were so strict. That time I took a bite of a hamburger and five-and-a-half hours later, you still wouldn’t let me eat an ice cream cone.” “But you’re just as tough with your kids,” I say. “One of these days, I’m going to die. Hopefully, sooner rather than later. Please, Talia, I’ll never proselytize. You can believe one thing, and I’ll believe another.” “No.” Talia’s body crumples, and her voice is minuscule, lost, broken. “Your kids don’t have to know,” I explain. “Nobody has to know. It’s my secret. Like that married guy—what’s his name? —whom you saw walking out of a gay bar.”
“That’s not the same thing!” “Talia, nobody has to know.” “You can’t keep a secret like that around here.” Talia’s voice has power. Nobody else, not even Morrie, ever wielded such clout over me. “Don’t tell me you started going to church.” “No,” I lie, not wanting to admit that I had driven to a church in the next town the previous Sunday, before I went to Talia’s house for a pancake breakfast. I had knelt there with the soothing, ancient light streaming through the stained glass windows, the sounds of my childhood prayers comforting me.
I offer you the Body and Blood, Soul and Divinity of Your Dearly Beloved Son. . . Talia does not answer. She has already seen me change since Morrie’s death. First, I stopped covering my hair, something that is required for Orthodox Jewish women for modesty’s sake, and then I gave up wearing long-sleeved shirts and finally the ankle-length dresses. I still miss the gentle swish of fabric, and occasionally I’ll pull out one of my old skirts because I want to be swathed in cloth. Morrie used to say that I was hidden within all that material, and it was his job to find me. “There. Is. No. Way.” Talia now speaks with urgency. “There is no way I can have a Catholic mother. Let’s go talk to him.”
“What other Charles is there? He’s my husband.”
“Mazel tov,” I tell her.
“Please, Mom.” Talia glances at the baby, still sleeping. “Now. There’s a lull in the rain.” “I like that word, lull. Remember how I used to sing ‘Lullaby, and good night’ to you? I’m still the same mother. It’s still me.” “Not really.” Talia grabs hold of the baby carriage. “Suddenly I feel that the person I thought was my mother is not the person she appears to be. You’ve transubstantiated right in front of my eyes.”
After locating my raincoat and my umbrella (finding misplaced things is always a tedious chore that takes up so much of my time), I follow Talia out into the rain. She clicks the carrier holding Ron-Lee into the seat of her van, closing the door like a mouth fitting perfectly over teeth; I climb into the passenger seat and buckle up. Through empty streets we drive. Rain splashes on leftover Halloween decorations, pumpkins and ghosts. I scan the sidewalk. One year Becky dressed as Morticia Addams; another year, she was a scarecrow with bright-red cheeks. What would Becky look like if she were alive now? Tears form in the corners of my eyes, and I remind myself that Mother Mary gave up her son for God just as I gave up my daughter. But Jesus Christ’s death was to atone for our sins and those of the whole world. What good came out of Becky’s death? The lingering grief makes me so tired that I want to curl up in my bed and not get out of there. For days, if not forever.
“I am so tired,” Talia is saying now. “I haven’t slept through an entire night since Rebecca was born.” Then she pulls into the driveway of her house, takes out the baby and we go up the path. By the front door is a wooden cabinet with shoes tumbling out of it—mostly kids’ shoes, some without laces, inserts, mates. On top of the cabinet is a dead geranium plant. “It takes great talent to kill a geranium,” I say. “You say that every time you come here.” Talia opens the door. The whiff of hard-boiled eggs is so strong that I wish that whatever is dulling my mind would also erase my sense of smell. Morrie was right: This is what I get for encouraging Talia to become an accountant. It was at Brooklyn College that she met Charles, who was also becoming an accountant. “Two accountants!” I joked to Talia after she told me that she met him. “I can’t think of another household that will have a tighter budget.” I didn’t know that Talia had already fallen in love; I didn’t know that in a few months, she and Charles would be planning their wedding. Talia has entwined her roots with Charles’s in this house cluttered with crayons, puzzles and Excel sheets.
Over the back of one of the chairs congregated at the kitchen table, I hang my coat, and then I ease myself into the next chair. I remember after Morrie’s death, I drove up to Otis and stopped at St. Mary’s Church. I walked through the small cemetery, visited my parents’ graves, and then I went inside the church, something I would never have done when Morrie was alive. I headed straight to the pew where I used to sit with my mother and brothers. Nothing had changed: the satiny quiet, my breath, God’s breath and my breath entwined like vines, and as I stared up at Jesus on the cross, a mystical peace filled my heart. I knelt down and said, “Oh my Jesus, forgive us our sins; save us from the fires of hell; lead all souls to heaven, especially those in most need of Thy mercy,” and I knew that Jesus had been carrying me all along. So, you found yourself another Jewish guy. Suddenly, in the middle of St. Mary’s, I heard Morrie’s voice! He didn’t even sound angry. Just go easy on Talia, he told me. It’s going to be hard for her to understand…
Sometimes, well, I still feel I’ve never stopped believing in the things i used to in my past.
After a long time, I went around to the rectory, cutting past the rhododendron bushes, the purple blossoms shining like headlights, the blue sky opening so wide I felt like I could fall right into it. I wanted to rush into Father Andrew’s office the way I always did when I was younger, but the receptionist, an unctuous woman with stiff, dyed-blond hair, didn’t know who I was and blocked my way like we were playing football, saying that I’d have to make an appointment. “But I came all the way from New York,” I said, and suddenly Father Andrew stepped out of his office, quickly introducing me to Patricia Maloney, who bowed her head.
Father Andrew’s study was lined with books and there, on a shelf, I noticed a shell I’d sent him a long time ago from Atlantic Beach. “You still have that?” I asked. “Of course I kept it. Why wouldn’t I?” He hadn’t written me off. Not like my mother, who sent bland holiday greeting cards to us in Atlantic Beach, always managing to misspell my husband’s name as Morry. (I know you think it’s spelled with a “y” because you’re thinking, why, why, why? Morrie used to try to find something to joke about each time he called to thank my mother over the phone. He said this each time even if it never made her laugh.)
“Your mother, God rest her soul, tried very hard to accept your decision,” Father Andrew said from the other side of his big desk. “I have to say that she never got over what you did. It shattered her heart.” He had large hands and white hair as thin as kindling, and I suddenly felt the urge to set it on fire. Why had I rushed over to talk to him? When I’d left Otis to get my master’s degree, Father Andrew had told me he was proud of me. With one caveat, he’d said. Don’t let your intellectual pursuits push away your faith. He hadn’t factored in an interception from a guy like Morrie.
“Your mother suffered because of your father, may he rest in peace,” Father Andrew went on, as if giving a sermon. “And then she lost Sean and your daughter, and in a way, she felt like she had lost you. But no matter what, she still loved you.”
“She sure picked a funny way of showing it.” I pause. “I never wanted to hurt her. I wish she had understood that when you raise children you have to let them go their own way.” “The anger vanished when she passed,” he said. “Can’t you feel the love?” I stayed quiet. I closed my eyes. I could feel that her fury had dissolved. I missed her then with an ache I hadn’t felt in years. I remembered one time when I asked her to help me with my homework when she was standing by the window. “I can’t,” she told me. “I’m waiting for your father.” I said she could help me while she waited for him but she pushed me away, her eyes red and bleary. She loved my father, but it didn’t stop him from drinking himself to death. My mother’s tears had never dried. She had suffered and in a way, I had made her suffer even more. If she were alive now, I could have given her this gift. I could have told her what I was now whispering to Father Andrew. “What if I’ve changed my mind?” I said. “What if I’ve come back?” “Maybe you’ve never left.”
Talia, do you have any aspirins?” I ask now. “So, you still believe in aspirins,” she replies. Gray loops are constricting inside my skull. “And you believe that Mary was a virgin?” Talia picks up her baby. “Mom! Seriously?” “Why should one miracle be more probable than another? Noah’s Ark and the Red Sea parting, and Abraham knocking up Sarah when they’re both pushing 100?” “You know,” Talia says fervently, “we’re part of a long, long chain that’s continued for—” “Millennia,” I supply. “Don’t think I haven’t said that spiel myself.” “I’m making more links to the chain.” Talia points to Ron-Lee like a visual aid. “And who are you to break it?” “Me? I’m Kate Avery, daughter of Therese and Rod Avery. I didn’t break the chain. I added a link, I added you, I added your children, and now I’m stepping back.” “You were my very best teacher.” Talia gives me a raw look, her voice trembling. “You gave me my faith. My Jewish faith. A sense of divinity. That’s a gift, Mom. You can’t turn your back on what you taught me.” “I’m not turning my back. Especially not with this headache.”
“If that’s what you want to call a hangover.” Talia nods briskly, in a downward sweep, her chin almost reaching the top of her chest, like someone falling asleep and then jerking awake. Ron-Lee is starting to whimper. Talia picks him up, disappears and then returns. She hands me two aspirins, sits on the sofa, and starts to nurse the baby. I go to the kitchen, wedging a cup over the dirty dishes and under the faucet. I swallow the pills and look out the window where the rain lands on the pine trees that separate Talia’s house from the neighbors. I hear Talia say, Sshh, sshh, sshh to the baby, and her voice is soothing, gentle, and I remember her telling me once that raindrops are supposed to sound like God’s heartbeats in heaven. Then the front door opens. Charles strides in from his office on the side of the house. I see his narrow dark eyes, his big dark beard, and the indentation on the bridge of his nose where his glasses usually sit. After briskly saying hello to me, he tells Talia, “You know I don’t like to be interrupted.”
“Mom—” Talia begins. Charles turns to me, then back to his wife. “Tal, what’s wrong?” “Mom thinks. . .She thinks. . .She thinks that maybe she wants to go back to being Catholic!” Talia bursts into tears. “What?” Charles says, plopping down next to Talia and pulling her into him, trying to comfort her, but she doesn’t stop crying.
I stand there watching them, not knowing what to say to my daughter because whatever consoles me leaves her bereft. The river gets empty as the sea is filled, and evening robs the day of its light. “I need to go,” I say. “I’ll walk home.” Talia looks past me. “In this weather?” “The rain has mostly stopped.” I put on my coat and step outside, taking my umbrella, and giving a quick goodbye. I don’t want it to be like this each time I come to their house, when I have no idea if Talia and Charles are happy I’m there or happier when I go. I make my way down their front path, through the fine misty drizzle, thinking that if raindrops are God’s heartbeats, then puddles must be God’s tears. That gives me a little laugh, and I want to go back to share this with my daughter, to explain myself more, to get her to understand my predicament, but she is probably still crumpled against Charles’s chest, his pencil-thin hands clasped around her.
“Wait up!” I hear Charles’s voice, and then I see him running toward me. A blast of wind flings my raincoat open and I stand there like a fool, waiting as he hurries towards me, a penguin in his black jacket, white shirt and black pants. I know I’m not going to like what he has to tell me, and I wish there is somewhere I can hide. “Why would you come out here in the rain?” I ask. “Did you want to make sure I haven’t melted?” “You’re not that sweet.” I have no desire to even smile at his silly joke. “I bet Talia sent you to try to talk me out of this, right?” “I need to tell you something.” He moves in. That look on his face makes me step back. We’ve never been this near to each other; even on their wedding night, when I was expecting to be called up for my first dance with my new son-in-law, I was never invited because Charles insisted the women dance apart from the men, so I joined Talia and her female friends and we danced around and around in dizzying circles. “I’m sorry, Charles,” I say, feeling odd standing so close to him, feeling odd saying his name. “I’m sorry, but I don’t think there’s anything you can say that will change how I feel.”
“Listen,” he says with urgency, and I picture the way he blesses his children on Friday night, his hands on their heads. May God lift up His countenance and shine it upon you. . . Before the Sabbath dinner, he blesses them. Each week without fail, he asks God to watch over his children, and I suddenly hate the fact that my father was a violent, mean drunk. I had so little and my grandchildren have so much. “Charles,” I snap, pulling together the two halves of my raincoat. “Just say what you want to say already. What is it?” “I told Talia that I believe—” Charles is speaking very slowly. His sermon on the mount. Standing here with him is ridiculous and I want to go home. “I know what you believe—”
“Please let me finish,” he says. “I believe that it doesn’t make a difference which donkey we ride as we go up the mountain, okay? I respect whatever donkey you ride. My mother’s dead. You’re the only grandmother the kids have and they love you, and that’s all that counts.” “I’m so stunned I don’t know what to say.” “Let’s just keep it to ourselves, okay?” He gives me a wry smile in the corners of his mouth, half-hidden by his beard, and then he turns around. “Thank you!” I call after him and he raises his arms, his hands curled in loose fists, his thumbs pointing up to the clouds, his rubber-soled black shoes hitting the wet sidewalk, splashing through the puddles as he hurries back to my daughter. I stand there for another moment. The soft light of the sky, the houses with their decorations and the smell of wet leaves. The drizzle gets stronger, falling on my hair, my face, my hands. Who’s to say that God is or is not? The rain is holy water, anointing me, it contains a multitude of blessings that cannot be explained.
Diana Bletter is the author of several books, including the novel A Remarkable Kindness and a National Jewish Book Award finalist, The Invisible Thread: A Portrait of Jewish American Women. Her writing has appeared in The New York Times, The Wall Street Journal and more. A former New Yorker and a graduate of Cornell University, Diana lives in a small beach village in Western Galilee, Israel, with her husband and family.