By Gala Mukomolova
Five girls wait for their egg sandwiches and I’m calling their names. A baby throws up and her mother is bewildered. She can’t connect child, vomit, napkins, high-chair, table, and floor. Can you help me? Of course. Of course. I dip a rag into the sani-bucket and swipe the surface chlorine clean. The girls finish their food and rise. They drag their full bodies into the peopled streets. The table they leave behind is a mountain of trash: soiled napkins, bits of sandwich meat, foamy drinking cups. I think of a phrase my mother would say as I clean up their mess: чисто американские дела. She would mean the undignified gesture of wayward refuse, the lack of tip, even the choice of food. Literally she would mean “purely American behavior.” I repeat her phrase in my mind as I separate landfill from recycling. This repetition comforts me. For a few seconds, I am not a woman in servitude to a world that eats my money before I’m sure I’ve ever held it. I am an alien stacking used plastic baskets, separating what can and can’t be saved. An outsider; I’m just trying to earn enough to get home.
As I’m writing this, it is Sukkot. Sukkot is one of my favorite Jewish holidays, although I cannot say I know enough about it. Much like my knowledge of the stars, I tend to take what I want from religion and leave the rest. Here is what I have come to understand: during Sukkot, Jewish families build a temporary shelter (an open structure called a Sukkah) in memory of the shelters once used to survive “wandering” for forty years. A Sukkah is like the Christmas tree of fall harvest, decorated in lights, vines, and gourds. Each shelter is individual and the decorating of it is a ritual in and of itself.
Sukkot lasts seven days and during those seven days one is encouraged to take all meals under the stars; those devout enough will opt to sleep outside as well. Sukkot does not, however, require a devout spirit. In fact, ritually, Sukkot scripture asks that you bind four different branches or “species” together to use as a kind of wand. This branch wand signifies four types of Jews, from the most devout and learned to the “I’m in it for the Kugel” Jew...ish. Sukkot maintains that all types of Jews are important in holding space for this ritual of memory, of survival.
The last day of Sukkot falls on October 15th, which is also the anniversary of my father’s last day alive. It is fitting, then, that I have spent the past week thinking about the temporary structure of my life. No, I haven’t built a three-walled vine-woven shelter so that I may sleep beneath the solar eclipse and darkening October sky. Instead, I’ve taken on this job. This job that asks me to forgive people their rudeness, to serve them with no expectation of reward. Each day I clock in, work toward exhaustion, and clock out. My only drive is knowing one day I will have enough money to return home so that I may be in the same city as my father’s grave.
On October 14th, my mother calls me. She talks at me for what feels like hours. Her topics shift rapidly. She recounts a movie she watched alone the night before in exacting detail. When my response is negligible, she starts talking about perogies. How the ones with potato are always more likely to come apart during boiling, everyone knows that and when will I give her a grandchild anyway? She is trying to take up space because like me she is haunted by silence, by the impending anniversary, and unlike me she does not know how to lock her feelings away inside herself. Instead, she begins to reminisce about her own mother taking my brother to the synagogue when he was a boy. "Back then there were no kippas,” she sighs, “not for us. My mother tied four knots in a black napkin to make a circle and he wore it proudly. It was sweet. Oh. What is life anyway? Nothing."
My mother barely thinks about Sukkot. As a child growing up in the post WWII Soviet Union, many Jewish rituals were denied her. Her knowledge of such things is selective, like mine. She knows to light a candle on Yom Kippur, to fast and pray for forgiveness; that Rosh Hashanah is the New Year, the honeyed light we dip our hopeful apples in. She knows that it’s Sukkot because balconies all down Ocean Parkway are covered with wicker walls and because Hassidic men start to harass her on the street waving bundles of branches in her face yelling “Jewish? Yes? Jewish?”
Once, my father lay in Maimonides Hospital in Brooklyn, New York, recovering from yet another heart surgery. A young Hassidic man busted into his room and asked impatiently: “You Jewish?” My father repeated the word Jewish, hesitant with his English, yet proud: I Jewish. In response, the strange man grabbed his right arm. He began to wind the arm with the black straps of the Tefillin, a box filled with scrolls used in prayer. My father didn’t know how to say, “Wait, I can’t raise this arm, I’m post surgery” or “Why are you here?” Instead, he allowed the intrusion. The man wound the box tight, without tenderness, and instructed my father to repeat after him. When my father’s Hebrew pronunciation faltered, he was corrected not kindly. Any interjection I made was ignored. This was a physical contract made between one sick man and one religious man doing mitzvah. The protective urgency of the daughter hardly mattered in such a circumstance.
It’s awful, I’m sure, that the memories I have of my father are always tinged with weakness: his and mine. I wish it were otherwise. I wish I could tell you, in detail, about the man he must have been before rheumatic fever ravaged the valves of his heart. How he moved amongst the writers and artists of Moscow’s underground, his insatiable Cancerian adoration of women, his wild vodka soaked nights. Those details are buried with him. Instead, here is a story I hold: Once, my brother was stationed with the Russian Army in Germany. The troops were very hungry; there was a lack of supplies. My father obtained a crate of bananas, which were rare in Russia — a delicacy in the days of the Iron Curtain. He took the rail to Germany and surprised the boys.
There is no record of how he accomplished such a thing but I know it is true by the way my brother’s face lights up when he retells the story. In some ways this act of nurture was a woman’s gesture, not because women are predisposed to nurturing but because we are expected to be. We are also expected to speak well of the dead, but back when my father was alive, my mother would often lament the ways she never felt like she had a husband: how she was expected to earn all the income, how he wasn’t strong enough to make her feel protected. Mine was not the type of family to acknowledge sacrifice. Sacrifice was something we did habitually, like eating dinner, or washing underwear in the sink.
In his last years, my father couldn't be trusted to shower with the door locked or go outside to buy fruit. Scared of metal and anti-theft detectors (their effect on his defibrillator), my father would wait for me outside stores with heavy plastic bags in his hands. Because he spent his days raising me, he managed to avoid learning English and at the end of his life knew only a handful of words: Jewish, daughter. Once, I had a physics tutor whose name was Boris, like my father’s. He moved through our building on one leg and would pinch my face when I asked stupid questions. Up until he passed, Boris2 and my father spent a lot of time sitting on a bench outside our building. Afterward, my father sat alone.
So begins the fourth year of my life without him and I too am alone, shaking the four species (or branches) in spite of my scant Jewish upbringing. Perhaps four is a magic number here. In Hebrew, four is Dalet, which is a branch on the tree of life. Dalet also translates to door, as in the door one must go through to understand God. What troubles me here is that a Sukkah has no doors. It is open to God always, a dwelling that is at once divine and ordinary — natural. Or perhaps I’ve had too much wine and there is nothing special about this year, no door I can ever walk through, no God that can offer me a house where grief and hope live together. What is life? October 15th passes as it always does, a day hushed with relentless rain, my inability to leave bed except to eat and relieve myself. Nothing.
At work, there are certain kinds of elderly men who inspire a lump in my throat. They tend to sit by themselves, order tea and cookies, take their time. They have elegant hands and soft grey hair. It is an effort, for me, to bring them their order without crying — especially this week. I think my father could have been one of these men, could have lived another ten years, could have brought one of those mystery novels he loved so much to a café and enjoyed time alone with his small pleasures, but that was a life never meant for him. I hope there’s a universe that exists other than this one and he is happy there. But what if it is otherwise? What if he is wandering lost without me like I am without him? Then I have made my heart into a kind of sukkah, a shaky dwelling place for his memory, divine and open to the elements. I have to believe that that is good enough.
Gala Mukomolova received her M.F.A. from the Helen Zell Writers’ Program. She is a poetry editor for Muzzle Magazine. Her work has been published or is forthcoming in a variety of places including Indiana Review, Drunken Boat, and PANK. She can be contacted at firstname.lastname@example.org.