While Sunny worked two bookstore jobs to keep the kids in clothes and herself in books, Grandma Rivka took care of spiritual and nutritional sustenance. Monday through Friday Sunny’s mother sent Danielle and Edwina to elementary school with a good packed lunch and an even better proverb.
Mondays: Rivka loaded each brown sack with two slices of home-baked, twelve-grain bread; freshly ground peanut butter; one ripe banana plus one dull knife for banana slicing; one twist-tie bag each of baby carrots, zucchini sticks, and grapes; and, if the girls gave Grandma an extra hug, a “little piece dark chocolate.” She advised them to drink plenty of water, and not to spend money on “empty-calorie liquids” like “colas and such.”
Danielle, eleven, and Edwina, nine, always rushed in the morning. Rivka made them take time for a proverb every school day, which she whispered in their ears before their coats were on, and reinforced by giving each granddaughter a torn-off slip of paper with the day’s adage written in Grandma’s spidery handwriting.
One Monday proverb: “You can lead a horse to water, but that won’t make him think.” Danielle and Edwina puzzled aloud over this. Danielle twirled strands that escaped one of her brunette braids; Edwina scratched freckles that didn’t itch.
The girls needed to “look things up,” call a librarian, or ask a teacher (often, all three). It took both of them nearly a day to learn the correct version: “You can lead a horse to water, but you can’t make it drink.”
The sisters reasoned Grandma got it wrong: her brain might be slowing down. They would never say so to Grandma, because they loved her and didn’t want to hurt her feelings. Edwina nodded to Danielle that they wouldn’t mention it to Mom Sunny either, because Mom had to work two jobs since Dad died, and they didn’t want her agitating about anything else.
“Grandma Rivka’s mangled maxims” were the sisters’ secret, which they pinky-promised to keep to themselves.
Rivka assumed Edwina and Danielle would figure out one day the wisdom behind their lunches and her proverbs, and did not pressure them.
Tuesdays: albacore tuna; diced red onion; olive oil; cucumber; tomato; a pinch of Meaux mustard, and red wine vinegar to “brighten things up.” Also, twist-tie bags of red Bell pepper strips; and mixed almonds and pecans. Plus “a lovely tangerine.”
Another of Rivka’s mangled maxims: “You can tug the Kaiser’s beard, but that won’t make it snow.” They had to figure out what or who a Kaiser was, and if it had anything to do with a roll.
Took them over a day this time; of course neither told Grandma that “grow” should take the place of “snow.”
Skip ahead two months: Danielle and Edwina tired of the bullying and nose-holding that accompanied Rivka’s increasingly Eastern-European-aromatic offerings. The day their sacks contained fuchsia-staining borscht; and mushrooms and calves’ feet pickled with white wine vinegar, green tomatoes, and garlic, was the day they complained to Mom Sunny.
Rivka and Sunny didn’t want their girls to be pariahs. From that day forward the sisters received money from Rivka, who got it from Sunny, and the girls bought foodstuffs as American as they could find. Soon a typical brown bag held: two thick slices of cottony-soft, bleached-of-goodness white bread; mayonnaise; two American cheese food slices; one slice of spectacularly salty but otherwise tasteless ham; unripe tomatoes, quartered; peaches canned with syrup; and cream-filled cupcakes.
Better they did for — or to — themselves now, Rivka thought, and dealt with the consequences.
They consumed much but still ached with hunger. Their attention spans shriveled while their waistlines grew. Oily skin, acne, dandruff galore, and the worst of it? Edwina and Danielle knew they had to give this up, but didn’t want to. They didn’t want Grandma’s maxims, either. The proverbs were complicated, and took up time they preferred to spend on soap operas or sitcoms. The sisters glanced at books but felt too foggy to read.
You go, children, live your American lives, Rivka thought. Why should they know she had a degree in nutrition from Vilnius University, Lithuania?
Finally, after Mom Sunny secured a few days off and managed to sleep, she examined like a jeweler with a loupe her once-beautiful, once-brilliant children, and squinted metaphorically at her stubborn mother. Then Sunny sat them all down. She asked questions. In a few days heads cleared, cold shoulders thawed.
You can’t lead a family to answers; you offer love, food, and reasoning to help the family think.
Iris N. Schwartz’s fiction has been published in many journals and anthologies, including Anti-Heroin Chic; Five-2-One; Gluttony: 7 Deadly Sins, Volume 2, Pure Slush; Jellyfish Review; and Spelk Fiction. Her short-short story collection, My Secret Life with Chris Noth, was nominated for two Pushcart Prizes. Shame is her latest collection.