An Incident in the Family
(Excerpt from a Novel)
By Evelyn Marshall
I was born Tamma Millerman. Tamma is a Hebrew name that means “without flaw”. In 1935, I was almost ten years old.
My father often said about June in Southern California that it was a disappointing month: unrelentingly overcast. Every morning at the breakfast table, I kissed my father and mother goodbye, and prepared to kiss my younger sister, who would soon be six years old. I leaned over the chair in which she was strapped so she could not fall out, and kissed her on her drooly-smeared cheek. She always grabbed at my already slightly wrinkled dress and I'd pull away. My lunch bag was on the kitchen counter. I took it and ordinarily left my parents still hunkered over breakfast remnants of cream of wheat and buttered bagels, and marched toward the front door. As I reached for the knob, I would hear my parents resume their arguing and fussing over my younger sister. But this morning, my father and sister were not at the breakfast table.
Walking to school along the residential streets started out quietly. I trailed my pencil against a chain link fence and listened to the clacking sound echoing over the neighborhood and watched the cats jerk their heads and the dogs bark. Eventually, I passed Doreen’s house, and she joined me. We were two and then came Marsha and Rhoda, and we all walked on together carrying our lunch bags and avoiding stepping on cracks in the sidewalk until we neared the school. The bell rang and we made a run for it. “Last one in is dumb and ugly.”
Spelling test; Ferdinand Magellan circumnavigated the globe and proved the earth was round; “Draw your maps quietly, children.”
At ten o’clock recess, the usual noise of screeching chairs and stomping feet exploded, and the class rose and filed outdoors. But during the commotion, a second teacher entered the room and whispered something to ours. Some of the students noticed and turned to pay attention for an announcement. The other teacher left and our teacher was not forthcoming.
By lunchtime, I noticed some of the teachers’ eyes flitting toward and then away from me. But this was not the first time I wore a wrinkled dress to school. I had not spilled breakfast on it. But Myra’s drooly fingerprints always left marks. I looked. Yes, her fingerprints were there. I was often embarrassed about my dresses. My mother could not always wash and iron them; I understood. My mother was overwhelmed tending to Myra.
By two o’clock, I realized that all the teachers were looking at me, looking away, looking at me.
At two-thirty, the school day ended. Students filed from the classrooms. Mrs. Sloane called to me as I headed toward the door and asked if I would like to erase the chalkboard. This was Mrs. Sloane who frightened everyone with her companion yardstick, the two of them coming down the aisles looking for legs not tucked under their desks. This was Mrs. Sloane who twisted her mouth into a tight hole whenever she let her yardstick fly, but was now offering me a most coveted opportunity to erase the chalkboard. It was not to be missed, the smooth gliding eraser causing the instantaneous, almost magical disappearance of the chalk — now you see it, now you don’t. After I finished, Mrs. Sloane asked if I owned a pencil box, knowing I did not. She said that last year a very nice one remained unclaimed by a student who moved away. She now went into her cupboard and withdrew a beautiful pink leatherette pencil box, and with her eyes full of an unexplainable and unfamiliar kindness, carefully opened each pink velvet-lined drawer to reveal its organized contents: two pencils, a pencil sharpener, a tin protractor, a stencil, scissors, ruler and a small pink eraser. She offered the beautiful box to me.
I held it to my chest, this gift, this treasure, and thought how extraordinary Mrs. Sloane really was. Of all her students, Mrs. Sloane had chosen me. She hugged me — my goodness! — and sent me on my way home.
Yes, for me the day had started and proceeded more or less like any other, but then there was the miraculous exception of Mrs. Sloane’s behavior and gift. I had always wanted a pencil box, and had even interrupted my parents once. during their arguing and fussing over my sister, to ask for one, but they were so preoccupied, as always, so distracted, that I knew they did not hear me. And I lost my nerve to ask again.
Other children had arrived home already, having not been asked to help their teachers. After school is such a lovely time of the day, even in early June. The sky clears and is blue, clouds pile up like scoops of vanilla ice cream, breezes stir, and the children are at their freedom, screaming and laughing, jumping, skipping and twirling, and calling to each other to start their outdoor games. I started rushing home to show my friends my pencil box and open the four drawers filled with wonderful things. I was so happy that I even hummed. I avoided stepping on the cracks in the sidewalk. I skipped next to the chain link fence all the way home.
“Tamma, Tamma, your family is going to be in the newspapers!” shouted the neighborhood boys running toward me. They circled me: Julius, Roger, Danny, Donald.
“Probably on the front page!” they said.
“Your family will be in the newspapers, Tamma. Reporters are taking pictures all over the place.” The neighborhood boys were jumping up and down on imaginary pogo sticks.
“Your father and your sister.”
“They took lots of pictures of the car.”
“Your father and your sister in the car.”
“Your father closed the garage door and started the motor.”
They said it fast and ran away: Julius, Roger, Danny, Donald.
Everyone always told me I was a pretty little girl, smiling, perky, outgoing. Everyone told me I was pretty. I had blond hair and blue eyes. Well, I also thought I was pretty. But no one was taking my picture.
What were the girls saying — Doreen and Marsha and Rhoda? Watching their faces, I suddenly dropped my pencil box and started running.
Cars were lined up along the curb in front of the duplex where our family lived. People were standing out on the sidewalk and lawn. A few, whispering, wandered back to the row of garages behind the duplex. So many people. When I approached our front door, I was almost prevented from entering, but as soon as people saw me they stepped aside. The door was wide open and people were crowded inside. They filled up the air with serious low voices, saw me, and turned silent — the men in hats and the women in aprons. My father would explain all this to me. Where was he? Well then, my mother would tell me what happened. Where was she?
I couldn’t find either of them, so I skirted around people to Mr. and Mrs. Wittner’s front door in the duplex. They owned the duplex and always knew what was going on. I couldn’t find them, either, so I circled back toward our front door. I worked my way inside, toward the little alcove that was my private sanctuary, mine, only mine; it was not part of the bedroom that my sister Myra and I shared. Myra took over everywhere; whether it was the bedroom, the kitchen, the dining room, even the living room, everything revolved around her. So, I guarded my alcove with my life. Only my things were in there. Except for now, when maybe twenty people seemed stuffed into the bedroom, and I couldn’t even see my alcove. I slid behind the big chair. No one could see me there.
“You say about nine o’clock this morning?”
“Rachel had gone back to bed. Tamma left for school an hour earlier.”
“So, the little girl was still wearing her nightgown?”
“They say she always wore a nightgown. All day.”
“Has the mother made a statement?”
“The doctor sedated her.”
“So, no one knows anything yet?”
“We know something.”
“And what exactly is that?”
“That the country is in a depression and its citizens are doing crazy things.”
“Oh, come on now. You can’t blame everything on the Depression.”
People drifted out of the house and back into the neighborhood. The crowd thinned until only relatives remained.
“Tamma, no one could foresee such a thing.”
“It’s God’s will, Tamma.”
“Yes, it’s God’s will.”
“You must be strong for your mother.”
“Where is my mother?”
Suddenly Aunt Naomi grabbed me, yanked me into a closet and closed the door behind us. In the darkness with my head brushed against some coats — I could smell mothballs — Aunt Naomi leaned down close to my face and pressed her finger hard against the tip of my nose and said, “For the rest of your life, you will never talk about this sin.” Then she opened the door. She walked out first and I followed.
“Hello, Rabbi,” she said.
Rabbi Klinger took my hand and ushered me over to a corner. We sat down. He lowered his voice and started talking to me, his arm shooting out periodically at people attempting to come close. He waved them away.
“Tamma, your father, a very good man, he —”
“I love him more than anyone else in the whole world.”
The rabbi hesitated a moment. “You mean you love your father along with your mother, of course.”
I was supposed to love them the same. I did love them each, but differently. I really did love my father a little more than my mother. I was a Daddy’s Girl. Everyone said so.
The rabbi placed his hand on my head. “Your father had an accident.”
“What do you mean? Is he hurt? Is he hurt?” I began yanking on the rabbi’s black jacket.
“Shush, shah! I will explain.” He always talked slowly. I was getting nervous. “Your father was in the car with your sister. He had forgotten to open the garage door. So, the fumes from the car motor filled the air inside the garage. The fumes made your father very sleepy very fast. And the same for your sister Myra. They fell asleep. And,” his lips stopped, pressed together hard, and started again. “They never woke up.”
“Why not?” I asked. It didn’t make any sense.
“Because the fumes were toxic.”
“What does that mean?”
I jumped up. “Where is my father?” People looked at me. I looked at them. I started running. People parted the way as I ran into them calling out, “Daddy, Daddy, where are you?” I ran everywhere through the rooms, searching for him because he was supposed to be here where all the people were. He was always where the people were, laughing, teasing them, making them feel good, my father, my handsome talented father. Someone grabbed me, “Tamma. Hold on, a minute.”
I looked up at a policeman. He would help me find my father.
Our neighborhood was largely a pocket of Jewish life. The non-Jewish element slipped into the background for me — except for the dainty greeting card shop that also sold Christian cards with shimmering crosses —and an ice cream parlor, elegant and Gentile, in a high-ceilinged cavern with hanging chandeliers, and the non-Jewish pharmacy, with its perfumed soaps and glossy magazines, where some people sat on twirling stools at the mahogany-shellacked counter devouring extravagant chocolate sundaes.
The Jewish stores offered merchandise less elegant but heartier. The Jewish bakery (not a donut in the lot or white bread) shelved tough-crusted ryes and pumpernickel, hardy bagels (water and egg), Jewish rolls of every kind (Kaiser, onion, sesame, caraway seeds) and sold them to matronly homemakers standing on sensible shoes who clutched sturdy pocketbooks. In the two-chair barbershop, a Yiddish-accented clientele all knew and talked to each other. In the little shoe repair shop, cool and dark, with its old, cracked leather chairs, men chatted while the cobbler kept busy at his craft, several nails gripped in his teeth. And at the far end of the neighborhood was the live chicken market, where the shrewd matron pointed to the bird in the cage that she wanted, and it was swiftly removed to the back room for slaughtering and defeathering. But looming over all of this was the chief edifice of a grand, two-storey brick synagogue with a circular stained-glass window above the front double doors.
Both Gentile and Jewish parents sent their children to the public schools to become part of American society. And everybody was attending, more and more, the new American films. Still, the Jewish adults held onto Yiddish stage productions, when they were lucky enough to see them, and, on the East Coast, followed favorite vaudeville performers. My father was mostly attracted to stage-performances and performers, and my mother, along with her high interest in all things artistic, was mostly attracted to my father.
My mother was gorgeously dark, like a Spanish dancer, and my father, a blond American leading movie star type, was a tap dancer and singer of popular songs. He wore black and white spectator shoes, the latest fashion in the 1920’s and 30’s, to which he added taps. They made him happy since they sounded when he walked on hard surfaces, and, therefore, he seemed to tap-dance everywhere — along the street, in performances, at home on the kitchen linoleum, even on the kitchen table — and everyone screamed and applauded. I remember when I was very little, before Myra was born, both of my parents were a team and put on skits at family parties, singing and dancing, and the relatives never had enough. My father, though, really wanted to be a serious stage actor. He took part in some stage reviews in the Yiddish Theatre, but nothing large. He sang in nightclubs occasionally. Finally, he found work in a music store where he sold sheet music with words to the most popular tunes. He stood by the piano player singing them, and his voice carried all over the store. The public bought the sheet music, which was cheap, and, sometimes, this being the purpose, bought the actual phonograph records of the music. The work was steady, but it didn’t pay enough. Working or not, my father always brought home a treat for me — some candy, a tiny toy, sheet music with words, or just a tickle he pretended to pull out of his pocket. I could see how he loved me, and I idolized him. I wanted to be with him all the time, walk with him in the neighborhood, and yearned for him to take me with him everywhere. I wanted to show off this man whom everyone seemed to love — the married women he teased, the aunts and cousins, even the merchants’ wives who all loved him almost as much as my mother did, as I did.
But when Myra was born, my father turned into a different man. Serious. Quiet. Preoccupied. That’s when he gave up all hopes for the stage, and went out every day simply looking for better-paying work. It was supposed to be just around the corner, he said, but later he said it was completely out of sight for families like ours, unless he were to go into a business of his own or with a partner, like Sam Murman. So, he invested the little money he had into selling musical instruments during the Depression. Sam Murman told him that people needed to hold onto something that made them feel good. He told my father that was the reason people went to the movies so often, and that’s why they would buy musical instruments. After my father lost his money, he said that Sam Murman was “a spellbinding crook.” My father was right, and Sam Murman was caught and sent to prison. I saw his face on the front page of the newspaper.
Between the problem with my sister and trying to earn enough money to support the family, my father turned unrelentingly gloomy; the sunshine went out of him and he forgot about me, just as my mother did. But I was angrier with my father because I felt he had deserted me.
My mother’s two sisters, Naomi and Netta, entered the funeral parlor, one arm on each side of my mother, holding her up, my small, too thin, fragile mother. All three sisters were short, the very same height, but that’s where the similarity stopped. Aunt Netta was overweight; she carried it mostly in the rear, so you didn’t see it right away. Aunt Naomi was known to have said, “A person can set a cup of tea on your posterior and not spill a drop.” Netta usually ignored her, smiling out from a plain face ringed with light, curly hair that swelled in damp weather, and lively eyes always looking for ways to enjoy life. Unlike Netta, Aunt Naomi was endowed with beauty. She sleeked her hair into a perfectly round chignon at the nape of her neck to show off her face. Her chignon reminded me of a snail’s house, though I would never tell her because I was afraid of her. I guess it was her attitude that instilled fear in me because it made her appear taller than she was, angular and serene, like a great bird, looking down disdainfully on others, ready to judge them. I walked directly behind. We all sat in the first row.
I was unaware of the other people except to know that there were lots of them. Everyone looked alarmed. No one cried. I did not understand anything Rabbi Klinger said; it was mainly in Hebrew. Besides, I was too busy watching my mother, not knowing how she would behave. She suddenly began to howl like a dog. It electrified me. Was she crying? I turned sideways and saw people from the neighborhood burying their faces in their hands. It seemed now like hundreds were there. Did the neighborhood close down, and did the proprietors lock the doors of their shops to attend?
Rabbi Klinger directed everyone to read from the small pamphlets that had been distributed. Even these were all in Hebrew. I waited for him to say all kinds of wonderful things in English about my father. What could he say about my sister? Nothing.
I remembered that at the funeral of my grandfather a different rabbi talked in English some of the time. He spoke about the two Millerman brothers, Mordecai and Milton, of their emigration from Russia, “the land of pogroms,” to America. They both found lodging and work. The older Millerman brother, Mordecai, had married in Europe and sent for his wife; then they had two sons. The younger brother, Milton, never married. When the wife died, Mordecai took a second one, my grandmother, and they had three daughters: Rachel, Naomi and Netta. Today I wanted to hear about my father’s life but the rabbi never said one word in English, so who knows what he talked about?
Then he waved the tiny pamphlets and announced, in English, that we should carry them with us up the hill to the site of interment. Everyone left the chapel. As a tight cluster, our family walked to the top of the little hill and stopped at the two rows of white chairs. My mother sat down, pulled me next to her and held tightly to my arm. I saw her staring outward. Did she know that I was the one she had pulled close? Aunt Netta and Aunt Naomi sat on either side of us. Aunt Netta’s husband, Barney, and Aunt Naomi’s husband, Avrum, stood behind. Where were their children? I was the only child there. As they arrived from the chapel, the people spread out over the hilltop and squinted in the sun.
The sun rose higher and intensified. Rabbi Klinger looked around approvingly, then led another set of prayers and the people wiped their brows and upper lips, and followed along in the tiny booklets. Afterward, everyone lined up to toss a shovel full of earth on the lowered coffin. Someone whispered, “She wanted them buried together. I think it’s against the law.”
My mother went first. She lifted the metal shovel and scooped up a small mound of earth. The shovel rose like a crane, wavered, moved sideways in the air, then stopped, moved to the opposite side, careened to the center and dumped its load. My mother collapsed. She was drawn to a side and administered something — maybe smelling salts.
Someone handed me the shovel. It was heavy. I closed my eyes and scooped up either none or a heap. I opened my eyes for just a moment, saw that the shovel had some earth piled on it, swung it and quickly shut my eyes tight and turned the shovel sideways. The earth fell on the closed wooden coffin and it sounded like rain. Someone grabbed the shovel from my hands and led me to the side. Little maps to the house were distributed.
The rabbi announced, “Evening prayers at the Millerman home will begin at seven o’clock. We are calling for a minyan to lead them.” The people moved away like rivulets down a mountain.
Aunt Naomi’s husband, Avrum, owned a big car. We climbed into its cool interior, out of the sun, and Avrum drove us away. Aunt Netta’s husband, Barney, sat next to him. The brothers-in-law, side by side in the front seats, remained silent. In the rear, my mother sat in the middle; I sat on Netta’s lap. The sisters’ eyes skirted around my mother, to each other, then quickly back to my mother, then to a run-away look out the window, again at each other, at her, at the car ceiling, back at her.
Aunt Netta cleared her throat and said to me, “Tamma, you and your mother will come to our house for Sabbath dinner.”
Aunt Naomi shook her sleek head. “Tamma and Rachel will come to us for Sabbath dinner. And I don’t want to hear another word.”
No one argues with Aunt Naomi.
The mourners lined up outside our front door. They waited their turns to wash their hands before entering. Each watched the person in front take a turn, watched over a shoulder as one hand lightly poured water over the other, washing off diseases associated with death, the rabbi said, washing off the nearness of death itself. Each person moved along and up the few steps. The screen door flapped open and then slammed closed, until finally someone propped a potted cactus plant against it, and said, “I’ve never been to a funeral before where no one talks at all. Not a whisper.”
“What can a person say? Especially to the little girl, Tamma?”
“Shah shah! There she is.”
Lots of hands patted my back or touched my shoulder. Some smoothed my hair. But no one spoke to me.
I don’t remember washing my hands.
For the rest of your life you are not to talk about this sin.
So many people. They darkened the inside of the house even though our walls were white.
Tall skinny Mr. Wittner, who ate so much but couldn’t put on weight, peered out from the kitchen doorway at the dining room table covered with an elaborate assortment of food, and he said to Aunt Naomi, “Hard-boiled eggs, lentils, bagels, cream cheese, smoked salmon, kugl . . . Look, no one is eating!”
“That’s because no one knows how to behave. Wait a little. People will adjust and they will eat.”
Mr. Wittner’s large Adam’s apple moved up and down fast. “I was the one who heard Rachel screaming in the morning. Tamma had already left for school. I was the one who called the police.”
“Who called the newspapers?” asked Aunt Naomi.
“It was the right thing to do,” he said.
Then Mrs. Wittner, whose great weight and ample bosom thrust her backward, walked out of the kitchen and said to Aunt Naomi, “The rabbi did not say anything personal. He recited only the formal prayers.”
Aunt Naomi frowned at Mrs. Wittner’s large bosom and said to it, “How could he say anything? No one could. This is an unspeakable thing.”
In one corner of the living room, intimately surrounded by a shroud of silent figures, sat my mother. I saw my uncle enter and approach her, and the others stepped back. He drew my mother to a standing position, wrapped his arms around her and said softly, “Rachel, I never thought he would do such a thing. Not in a million years.”
She replied, “It was our secret, Milton.” After a while, he left her and slipped through the crowd and out the screen door.
“That was Milton Millerman,” said one of the neighbors. “Her husband’s brother.”
My mother’s eyes followed him until he was out of sight. Then she sat again, smoothed her hair and hiked up her stylish sunglasses. My father had purchased them for her before Myra was born. She had no idea she would be wearing them for the funeral of one-half of her family.
People settled stiffly into the wall-to-wall folding chairs and nodded to one another. Whispering started, then muttering, and finally people talked aloud, but carefully.
“Benjamin was still a young man.”
“Has Rachel said anything at all?”
“It was on the front page of all the newspapers.”
The aroma of coffee cheered the crowd and they began to trickle over to the table laden with food. Once the cream cheese traces appeared on their mouths, the remarks diverged and the noise level rose. Even a laugh jumped out now and again, then guiltily submerged.
“Look. Little Tamma sits alone. Who can talk to her? What is there to say to a child about such a thing?”
I stood and walked over to my mother. I looked into her eyes and I did not know her. Nevertheless, I put my arms around her, and, slowly, her arms came over me and hung loosely. That was the moment I knew she was in terrible trouble.
“Don’t worry. The rabbi will be here in time,” the women assured the men. At five minutes to seven, he arrived, somewhat ruffled and breathless, seemingly having rushed away from another obligation. He greeted Uncle Milton, then nodded a signal for the minyan to begin. The men assembled, many more than the required ten, wearing their street hats or pulling yarmulkes from their pockets and slipping them on. They recited the prayers, rocking back and forth. When they ended, they shook hands with each other and said, “Let us meet under better circumstances.”
The rabbi turned to my Uncle Milton, explaining that he was rushing to another service like this. Then he thought for a moment.
“No, not like this.”