Writings / Fiction

Rituals of Morning

Dolly Reisman

          Years later she would say it was the silence that woke her. She would know by then silence was a powerful sound. 

February 1960

            There were no sounds, no words, no grunts and no breath. The sun, high and hot penetrated her eyelids and nudged Sally towards consciousness.
            Frantic footsteps climbed the stairs.
            “Wake up, Sally,” her father said.
            Outside, the distant wail of sirens. Rituals of the morning she missed that day:      
            Brushing her teeth.
            Saying good morning.
            Opening the front door to test the air.
            Braiding her hair.
            Rubbing her growling stomach.
            Dressing her hot cereal with milk and butter and blobs of brown sugar.
            Kissing the dog.
            Kissing her mom.
            Kissing the dog again.
            Watching her dad shave.
            Getting dressed.
            Watching Bubba squeeze into her girdle.  

            Other mornings began with the sound of Bubba’s breathing as she heaved her old arthritic body to the bed’s edge, her inevitable sigh of ‘Oy’ as her feet dangled just above the floor and she stretched for slippers always out of reach. Bubba catching her breath, the swish and the caress as her body slid down satin sheets, and the thump as her feet hit the hardwood and she shuffled to the window in slippers cut out to accommodate her bunions and corns, and dragged the drapes open across steel tracks.      
            Pale light from the sun’s weakened rays.
             It was way too early.
            Outside, the rumblings of early morning: the slapping of newspapers landing at their front door, and then at the neighbour’s, and then at that neighbour’s neighbour, all the way down the street until the thud disappeared into nothingness.
            What news did the world have in store for her today?
            And every morning, Bubba thinking she had been quiet, was surprised.  “You’re awake? You should be sleeping.” 

            Her ears ached with the screams of ambulances and fire trucks arriving en masse in front of their house and the massive truck halfway up the sidewalk, spilling over into the next yard. The choir of sirens continued as the house descended into chaos with the guttural moans of her father and the sympathetic hushing sounds of her mother trying to comfort him, and the men, tall as trees, rushing inside and galloping up the stairs to Sally’s room where her Bbubba lay in the bed next to hers, not breathing.  
            Sally sat on the worn, orange-plush living room couch, still in her pyajamas, in a daze. She had been scooped out of her bed and rushed downstairs - her blanket trailing behind- where her father ordered her not to move. She collapsed into the soft cushions and pulled the wool Hudson Bay blanket over her ears, her face, her eyes, closing out the whir inside her head. She hummed away the chaos and rocked until the sirens were turned off and the men came down the stairs and a hand gently touched her arm.
            “Sally,” her father said.
            He bit his lip and motioned towards the men who walked slowly, bent under the weight of the stretcher, a white shroud covering the mass that was the body of her bubba.      She thought she should cry, but she didn’t.
            The men tripped. The sheet slipped and Sally saw Bubba’s dead face. 
            Anna, her Bubba, had walked across her country in the blistering cold escaping pogroms. She walked through fields soaked in the blood and decaying flesh of friends and strangers. She came to Canada on a boat with a new husband and a half-empty suitcase. And now four men were rushing her body out of the house, out of their lives.
            “She’s dead,” her father said.
            He sobbed.
            She knew that Bubba was dead, and even if this body looked like her, it wasn’t really her. The body belonged to God after you died and the soul lived on.         
            “Better say good-bye,” her mother said. She stood beside her father and held his hand, her huge pregnant belly looking as if it were about to burst.
            Her father wept. Tears plopped onto the floor. The men moved Bubba through the hallway, out the front door and down the cold concrete steps. In the blistering dead of winter, the neighbours crowded in front of their house and watched as the men put Bubba inside the ambulance. They drove away without a siren. 
            Sally never said a word, but refused to watch. She knew her Bubba was hovering somewhere, free from her beige opaque support stockings and her secret-slimming girdle that daily corseted her flesh, the aches and pains of her arthritic hands and knees and hips, and bunioned feet and curled toes. Free of the blaze of nightmares that traumatized her each and every night as she relived her escape from Russian occupied Ukraine.
            Sally raced up the front concrete steps, slipping and grabbing the rail to stop herself from falling back down the stairs and hitting her head and cracking it open. Her feet splayed but she didn’t care, she hauled herself up to the door yanked it open and somehow landed inside with both feet intact, and went straight to the kitchen.
            When she wasn’t sleeping in their room, Bubba was in the kitchen.
            Sally wanted to brew tea. It’s what her Bubba did when she was upset. Fill the kettle and boil the water, pour the scalding water into the teapot and let her used teabag steep. Bubba used the same teabag all day long.
            She’d wait a short amount of time and then she’d fill her glass with the hot liquid no matter what the colour was. As the day wore on her tea got weaker and weaker, but Bubba didn’t mind.  She liked her ritual: pouring the tea into the glass, then pouring from the glass into a saucer and blowing on it until it cooled. Finally, she’d put a teaspoonful of strawberry jam in front of her teeth and bring the saucer up to her mouth and strain the tea through the jam, sweetening it as it travelled into her belly.
            “Ah,” she’d sigh, “it’s good, it’s good.”
            Sally made tea and waited. She went through Bubba’s entire ritual, then sat at the kitchen table in Bubba’s chair, a chair separate from the rest of them, where Bubba would read The Forward in Yiddish and answer the phone when it rang and make notes tracking the daily delivery of milk bottles– a list delivered monthly to the milkman in her cursive Yiddish- and the items at the cleaners, and the numbers of Challahs bought at a bargain price from the kosher bakery up the street just before the beginning of Shabbat.
            After a while she put out Bubba’s favourite biscuits, the ones she’d dip in her tea to soften them until they were mushy and ready for her bare baby-like gums.
            Bubba didn’t come.
            A sliver of sunlight over the sink angled its way inside. Sally loved the strange ways the sun snuck inside their house like a math problem, all lines and angles. She was mesmerized by the specs of dust suspended in mid-air, captive of some unexplained, mysterious power. She imagined Bubba walking through the door in her flower-embroidered housecoat, her hair not rolled into its usual bun, but hanging down past her shoulder, grey, thin and straggly. Her thick legs stiff and heavy from a full night’s sleep, as she made her way through the kitchen to the table where she would lower herself carefully into a chair, grunting and groaning along the way. 
            Bubba didn’t come.
            The light faded. The tea got cold. The biscuits went uneaten.
            Sally laid her head on the table and closed her eyes and her tears flowed freely onto the tablecloth marring its starched pristine whiteness. Her mother would wash the soiled cloth, the tea would get tossed down the drain and the cookies returned to the cookie jar until they were once again proffered at the end of a meal or as a snack, eaten with relish and delight and occasionally hunger.

   She wanted to sleep in her room.
            She was halfway up the stairs before her father said, “It’s not a good idea.”
            “Why not?” She had turned around and bent down so she could see him through the railing.
            He didn’t say anything at first. She knew he was trying to come up with a good reason but couldn’t. Finally he settled on, “I’d just rather you stayed in our room tonight.”
            “Jesus,” she said, stomping down the stairs. 
            Whenever she said that name Bubba would say ‘Oy’ and spit three times.
            “You want me to sleep with you and mom? Look at the size of her, she’ll crush me.”
            Sally hadn’t ever seen her dad cry before and it scared her. While everyone was crying and hugging each other, when her uncles and aunts came over, Sally had made a deal with God. While under her blanket, she made the deal that if she kept her eyes open all night, then, by the first light of dawn, Bubba would come home, alive. 
            “What if she comes back?”
            She stood in front of his chair so she could see his face.  He had a pained way of looking at you when he didn’t believe you or disapproved of what you were saying, but she couldn’t detect anything from the way he looked. He pulled a pack of Export unfiltered cigarettes out of his shirt pocket, opened the package carefully and slid one of them out, a, dangled it from his mouth, then lit it with the lighter tucked into the packet, and inhaled deeply. 
            “I don’t think she’s coming back. We’re burying her tomorrow,” he said, blowing out smoke then inhaling it again through his nostrils.
            She’d buried her bird in the backyard a few years ago. Her dad had helped her dig the hole just beside their garden. There wasn’t a real bird to put in the hole, since a tomcat they’d been feeding had eaten the bird. It was a budgie, light blue with dark blue wings and some green specks on her face. Sally had witnessed its death. Two gulps and the bird was down the cat’s throat; a few feathers floated in the air, proof of the cat’s existence.
            She’d heard the crunch.
            Sally ran after the cat - she’d had the idea of cutting its stomach open and rescuing it. But the cat ran fast, out of her reach.
            When the hole they dug was finished, she dropped the feathers into it and watched as her dad raked the earth, filling the hole until it was all covered up without any sign of having been disturbed.
            She snuck into her own room that night and sat up in bed and stared out the window. She watched the large magnolia tree; its branches stripped bare, tapping the window.
            She didn’t remember falling asleep, or the wind picking up and howling, but she jumped when the branches crashed into the window, coming like a pure jolt of life, like she imagined it would feel the second you were born.
            She saw the man in the moon and smiled, then slid down into her bed and looked straight up at the ceiling, seeing through the plaster, past the stars and moon and straight to heaven.
            But she couldn’t stay awake. As much as she wanted to have Bubba back, her eyes kept closing. The first few times they drooped she managed to rouse herself and force her eyes open.  She pinched herself hard enough to yell ‘ouch’ and then pinched herself all over her body; it felt like a million mosquitoes. 
            But her eyes shut. She had lost her deal with God.
            Bubba wouldn’t be waiting for her in the morning.
            Bubba wasn’t coming back.

About The Author


Dolly Reisman has a MFA from York University. She’s written for both theatre and film and her short story DOBA was published in TOK 2. She is in the process of developing YiddishTalk, a Yiddish oral history project. Dolly lives in Toronto.

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