Tale 1 from David-Horodok by Kathryn T. Winston

Tit-eleh for Tat-eleh


It was Saturday afternoon on The Greble and Estusha sat on her front porch, a mound of satisfaction. After all, it was Saturday and she lived on The Greble. In David-Horodok one mentioned "The Greble" in a voice lowered with reverence and maybe a little awe, as New Yorkers spoke of "Fifth Avenue" or Parisians the "Champs Elysèes." If the unpaved mud streets, wooden sidewalks and single-story, shingled houses fell short of the outside world's standards, the street still drew admiring, if mildly jealous, Jewish strollers on Shabbes and admiring, if mildly jealous Christian strollers on Sundays.

Shpatsirin, shpatsirin. Footstep followed footstep. Young people courted. Children played tag. Families visited one another in a round of sociability, and some of the old just wandered, lost in the past or their God. But whatever lured Horodokers out of their homes on a fine Shabbes afternoon, all nonetheless found a reason to walk past The Greble's picket fences to The Bridge, The Greble Bridge, where they admired the Horin River's endless beauty before finding their way back to their own rooms, and drew pride from David-Horodok's patch of elegance. Estusha now sat on hers, waiting to be admired.

It was a fine autumn day. "Visiting will be brisk," she thought as she rearranged her voluminous skirt yet again, the black material crinkling. Sunshine was strong after days of rain, coaxing glinting diamonds out of street puddles. Estusha warmed herself in its heat. Since Horodokers had been kept inside most of the week, Estusha knew they would be out in volume today. This meant her family would be in complete attendance. She ran her fingers along the stray hairs on her auburn wig and patted them down satisfactorily. At the venerable age of 60, attention was appropriate.

As she scanned the street for signs of her first visitors, her brows rose with the distasteful realization of what the extensive mud now covering David-Horodok meant for her house, and she speedily hoisted herself off the porch bench. She felt a fool not to have thought of it before. On a day like this, visitors would drag half the outside street into her home, along with God-knows-what-else left by the pigs, cows and horses. She sighed with advance aggravation. "Gittel," her voice loudly summoned her maid, who was in the house.

Gittel appeared at the door.

"You'll have to wash all the floors the minute the sun sets. The house will be filthy from people tracking in mud all day. Remember-the minute the sun goes down!"

Gittel nodded and disappeared. Estusha was mildly annoyed. First, it would be nice if Gittel occasionally answered her. Second, the prohibition against Jewish servants working on Shabbes was incredibly inconvenient. But no matter. As long as Gittel did what she had to Saturday night, everyone would know Estusha was maintaining appearances as best she could.

As Saturday wore on, Estusha's predictions about the town's geniality proved true. By now, she had seated herself in the center of her red painted floor, on one of the carved wooden chairs shipped all the way from Pinsk. Her guests were helping themselves to glasses of tea from the bronze samovar which stood beside her on an elegant inlaid table she had once ordered from Warsaw. Making a good impression had been key to her husband's success in shipbuilding. While he lived, wealthy men believed in advance that his vessels would be well-built because his house was so well-appointed.

Many family members had already filled the room-laughing, eating, and drinking-when Estusha turned to accept a hug from her daughter Hinde. Then glancing past, she sighed in frustration. Hinde's presence was such a mixed blessing. Hinde always arrived with her eldest daughter Freda in tow. Estusha's stiff cheek greeted the girl's reluctant kiss. As usual, Freda's plainness and stick-like demeanor bothered her grandmother. Estusha knew Freda would stand quietly in the corner, one hand clutching the other, during the entire visit, not uttering a word or moving so much as an arm or leg. Was that any way to attract a husband? Did it show the proper appreciation for Estusha's hospitality? No one ever said, "Estusha, what an exceptional granddaughter you have!" Why didn't Freda at least do something with that ashen brown hair of hers, which now hung around her shoulders in blown disarray? Pique prodded Estusha to reach a decision she had been considering for weeks. She thought Freda's marriage prospects dim. If something weren't done, the girl would slip into spinsterhood and become a permanent embarrassment to the whole family. Waving a flattering young cousin off the chair beside her, Estusha firmly pulled Hinde down.

"Your daughter is going to have an impossible time finding a husband in David-Horodok, Hinde." Estusha whispered, though unfortunately her whispers had become louder as her own hearing had faded. Freda's scarlet face sunk toward her chest.

"Sha, mama. Be quiet. My Freda is an intelligent, kind and loving girl. Any man would be proud to have her for a wife." Hinde said this loudly, not so much for her mother's sake as for Freda's. By this time everyone in the room had become interested in their conversation.

"Reading constantly is no recommendation for a wife! If she had sense, she'd hide her intelligence; no man wants a wife smarter than he is." Estusha hammered this last point triumphantly, and the conversation around the samovar suddenly grew louder, as embarrassed relatives tried to drown out words they should never have heard.

"It will take a hefty dowry to attract a man this family can be proud of, and you and that husband of yours haven't got a cent." Estusha ripped into Noah's reputation with accustomed vigor, though she had once handpicked him for the canopy. She and Noah the Watchmaker had barely spoken for years. He was not one for paying court and his absence today rankled, as usual.

"And what do you propose we do?" Hinde's frustration was showing, her voice rising in dread of some awful plan her mother was clearly concocting. "Fly to the Tsar's palace and come back with diamonds hung around our necks?"

"No, I propose to loan your daughter the money for a ticket to the United States. I hear that men there are plentiful, and they don't ask dowries for their wives." Hinde blanched at the thought. She would lose her daughter forever, the true meaning of emigration for those left behind.

"I'll never permit it,' Hinde screamed, "And if you keep talking like this, I'm leaving!"

Estusha relented because Hinde's anguish told her she had won. "Very well, but think about it. It's really the best thing for the child."

Letters arrived monthly for Hinde-how Freda had gone to work sewing men's pants at Wein Brothers in Detroit, how she had met a young man, married, had a baby girl, then a boy, then another girl. How they grew and went to school, how the family moved from an apartment to a house. Hinde ached with longing each time a letter came, torn between loss and happiness in her daughter's good fortune.

As the years passed, David-Horodok was enveloped by WWI. One army after another moved through the town, each one quartering its officers in the wealthy houses on The Greble-all the houses but Estusha's that is. The town decided the cranky old woman was too much trouble for even Polish officers to bother with, and, following their example, left her alone. Instead the townsfolk buried themselves in survival.

Estusha's circle of attention was reduced to one great-grandson, Chaim, a delicate boy who visited her every day. Her bullying kept him alive. She made him eat, wear warm clothes, visit doctors, ignore bad dreams. Her inlaid table, carved wooden chairs and the family silver were sold to pay the black market's prices. Then her gold wedding ring and precious jewelry were relinquished to the Balakovitzes, the white Russians who demanded a ransom for not murdering all the Jews in town.

In exchange Chaim entertained her with the things he had read, or thought, or imagined. Interested in all scholarly matters, his mind flooded hers with information. As troops moved through with ever-greater frequency, he began teaching her foreign phrases, so she could cope with the changing governments in town. In the end, he decided she should also learn English and Hebrew, to prepare for emigration. In her seventies by now, she realized the absurdity of the suggestion, but humored him because she enjoyed the company.

Once the Treaty of Riga was signed in 1921 and Poland acquired David-Horodok, Estusha expected her world to return to what she had known before 1914, before the war to end all wars, but this was not to be. Malech-hamoves, the Angel of Death, had already cut a wide swath through David-Horodok and was soon to find Hinde and then Chaim. As so often, Estusha did not realize how much she loved them until they were gone.

The days passed heavily until one morning a letter arrived from her granddaughter in America. Freda would be coming to visit her relatives, to find out if they were all right. Could she visit Grandma Estusha as well?

The couple arrived at the old woman's front steps on a warm summer Saturday. Estusha sat on her porch, secretly pleased to be receiving guests on a fine Shabbes afternoon once again. As before Freda stooped to kiss her cheek. "Fine day," Estusha said to Freda's well-dressed husband. "It's nice of you to come and see me." He tipped his hat impatiently, clearly not understanding a word that had been said. She watched him as he examined his surroundings with quick judgmental glances, wondering how to communicate with a Jew who obviously did not speak Yiddish.

They went into the house and Estusha was considering which of Chaim's English expressions might prove useful when she heard Sam whistle and murmur to his wife, "Boy, is this place is a dump!" When her granddaughter shushed him Estusha heard his answer, "The old lady doesn't speak English; how can she tell what I'm saying?" He pasted a smile on for Estusha, who at this point decided she indeed did not know English.

After an awkward conversation, with Sam alternately pacing and sitting, the visitors got up to leave. Sam shoved several hundred rubles into his wife's hand and said, "Tell her to buy something to cheer this place up. And tell her we'll be sending more. I know she gave you the money to come to America and I'll always be grateful, because otherwise I wouldn't have met you." Sam put his arm around Freda and kissed her cheek warmly.

Freda slipped the money under her grandmother's tablecloth and suggested instead, "We'd like you to buy some toys for your grandchildren." Her grandmother's upright posture already told her the old woman's pride had been wounded, and she didn't want to offend more. Then she kissed Estusha's cheek one last wrenching time and left.

Estusha spent most of the night gazing out at the stars. It had been a remarkable day. She had been called an old lady and had heard her house referred to as a "dump." Although she didn't know what a "dump" was, she suspected it was not flattering. Worst of all, she had been the object of pity. Freda, Hinde's daughter, had pitied her. At one time the old matriarch would have been furious, but by now Estusha was old enough and tired enough and had lost enough, to understand the justice.


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