For a week after young Ruthie Rosenblum’s mom left, she and her dad holed up in their house—the small Victorian with wraparound porch and mezuzah on the doorpost. Neighbors stopped by with Jell-O molds and lasagnas, as if there had been a death or something. Members of the Congregation B’nai Emet Sisterhood visited, morning, noon, and night, bringing chopped liver, chicken soup with kneidlach, brisket, and cinnamon babka. Most of the women greeted Ruthie and Dad with a silent nod or a pitiful “Sorry” and headed straight for the kitchen with their casserole dish or pie plate. The president of the sisterhood arrived first. She patted Dad’s hand, her cracked, dry lips collapsing into a gloomy frown. “Gave her the best years of your life,” she said. Her pity made it seem it was all downhill from here.
Ruthie hugged her knees on a chair, surprised none of the yentas covered the mirrors and tore Dad’s shirt as if he were in mourning. They huddled in the archway from the dining room to the parlor, conversing in hushed tones. Ruthie strained her ears and caught a smattering of words: “doctor,” “no doubt,” and “affair.” She suspected they were whispering that they weren’t surprised her mother had left, that they were shocked she’d stuck around as long as she had. She let them believe what they wanted but worried that their malicious talk might make Dad turn against her too. She watched red lips stretch, form syllables like, “What woman wouldn’t trade in this for that doctor?” And “so handsome.” Ruthie wished Dad would grab the women by the scruffs of their blouses and shove them out the front door.
They shook their heads, “tsk-tsk-tsk,” at Ruthie in her maroon checked jumper. Ruthie tried to suck in her cheeks, but they still pinched. Ruthie didn’t need these women, if all they had to offer was pity.
Ruthie sat in the parlor with white tights and black patent leather shoes dangling under a TV table, The Colchester Telegram, and a plastic egg filled with Silly Putty. She pressed a wad of the stuff onto a front-page photo of President Carter and then stretched the image from ear to ear until he looked like the guy from the cover of Mad magazine. She held it up and looked around, reflexively opening her mouth to call, “Look, Mom!” Only, she caught herself and the halting sounded like a phonograph needle yanked off a spinning record.
Dad moved closer to her. A hot, prickly feeling climbed her neck, invading her cheek. Ruthie placed the Silly Putty on the TV table. Without warning, she yanked the paper over the Silly Putty like a sheet over a corpse’s face.
It took him a few seconds to react. He cleared a catch in his throat, sat on the sofa next to Ruthie, and placed his hand on her head. “Here I am.”
She nestled her scalp into the palm of his hand. Her heart slowed for a moment. Mom had cradled and rocked her when she was smaller. She had braided Ruthie’s hair, tied her shoes, and packed her lunchbox for school. The last time Mom played with Ruthie’s hair was the day she picked up everyone but Ruthie in the Hebrew School carpool. It took dropping off her twin cousins and the Goldstein kids before Mom even realized Ruthie wasn’t jumping around in the way back. When the station wagon finally screeched into the synagogue parking lot, Ruthie was shivering, crouched on one of the parking blocks, chewing the inside of her wool scarf. Mom leaned on the horn to get Ruthie’s attention and signaled her to get in the front seat. Sure, Mom was a little frazzled, but that’s why she listened to inspirational cassettes in the car, which was even more boring than Hebrew School, and that day was no exception. Ruthie got into the car, still shaking and upset for being left in the cold—literally.
Mom said, “Sorry. All those kids jumping around in the backseat, I thought you were one of them!” She reached over and tucked one of Ruthie’s curls behind her ear. Ruthie smacked Mom’s hand away as the intense recorded voice cut through the air. “…You and I want our lives to make a real difference—to contribute to the quality of life in the world. We know there’s no satisfaction in merely going through the motions. In fact, you and I want to make the world work—”
“Do I have to listen to this?” Ruthie bashed the tape recorder stop button.
“If not you, who? If not now, when? If not here, where?” Mom recited like the Pledge of Allegiance. “This Erhard Seminars Training is helping me find my true self—to figure out ‘who we are.’ It’s all about the transformation, you know, how life is a creative expression.” She pressed play on the tape deck.
Ruthie buried her face in her scarf and stewed.
“When you look at making the world work, you are confronted by, and cannot pass over the fact that each year fifteen million of us die as a consequence of starvation,” Mom’s idol continued on the tape. “This unparalleled failure for humanity enables us to see that the world’s unworkability is located in the very condition in which we live our lives. Thus, it is not people out there who are starving; people are starving here—in the space in which you and I live.”
“He’s not kidding!” Mom said. “Are you starving too? What do you want for dinner tonight?” And she turned off the recording.
It annoyed Ruthie at the time, but thinking back on this moment now, it annoyed her even more that she appreciated her mom’s dark humor.
Then, the emptiness at the thought of Dad alone in charge pushed beyond her memory of Mom—like her heart chiseling its way out from behind her ribs.
Dad said, “Let’s see what you made.”
Ruthie planted her hands on the paper so he couldn’t lift it up. “No. Don’t look.”
He resorted to his standard move; he made his index finger into a buzzing bumblebee and poked her ribs. Even though Ruthie relaxed her hand and showed him the page, she felt unsettled. What did Dad know? She needed more than a tickle to keep her going. Ruthie didn’t know any kids in the community living with single dads. Dad had fiddled with a cigarette between clammy fingers in his pocket as women in Colchester warned him against letting Ruthie skip breakfast, wear poorly fitted shoes, or stay up beyond an eight o’clock bedtime. Ruthie hoped he had tuned them out before one of the women insisted Gabe send Ruthie across the street to Bea Flannigan’s after school. No such luck.
The first Monday back at school, when the dismissal bell rang, Ruthie walked home like she’d done every school day since the first day of kindergarten. Only this time, instead of skipping up her Merriam Avenue driveway, she turned down the side street and walked up the teaberry-lined flagstone path of the little yellow cottage. Ruthie had seen Miss Flannigan hanging out the laundry in the yard from her bedroom window. She also knew Dad helped her take in the trash cans on Tuesday evenings, but she had never spoken to the woman before. She stared at the doorbell button, hoping when Miss Flannigan answered the door, she’d be belting out the song “Hello, Dolly. Well, hello, Dolly,” the same way Ruthie’s mother used to do before she started whispering and giggling on the telephone, in corners and in closets, from the moment Ruthie got home from school until the moment Dad got home from work.
Ruthie pressed the doorbell, and the chimes sounded. Ding-dong ding-dong ding-ding-ding-dong. Miss Flannigan greeted her at the door with a quiet smile. Ruthie wrinkled her nose at the overpowering smell of Mr. Clean as she looked up at the shapeless gray and blue housedress, at the broad shoulders and red beehive hairdo. Her new babysitter stood as stiff and rigid as an autumn maple. Miss Flannigan looked nothing like Ruthie’s tulip-like mother, whose brown wavy hair had spilled onto the shoulders of hot pink, floral-print maxi dresses. The contrast made the distant barking of a neighbor’s dog and the growl of a lawnmower next door disappear. She might have been across the street from her house, but she felt cut off from her entire world. Ruthie filled the silence by singing in her head, “…I feel the room swaying, and the band playing…”
“Hi, honey. I made pancakes with Mrs. Butterworth’s.” Miss Flannigan took Ruthie’s hand and led her through the entry toward the kitchen. Ruthie thought it a little strange to have breakfast after school but she followed. And as she did, the Mr. Clean smell transformed to fried batter and something smokier than the brisket the kosher butcher delivered to Dad all the way from Brookline, an hour away. Her eyes took in everything from the small hallway leading to the kitchen, including a statue of a woman standing in a shell with outstretched arms, perched on a corner shelf. Above the door to the kitchen hung a plus sign with a mostly naked man attached to it, and a dry-hay-colored palm frond tucked behind it. The figure might look better wearing her Malibu Ken doll’s swimsuit, but it probably wouldn’t have fit.
The afternoon sun cast a ray through the window onto a long, lace-covered table against the wall. The light glinted off a tiny carousel with painted horses, whose pink and purple dappled coats and glittery manes delighted Ruthie. Ruthie imagined the pink one trotting along the table. Her eyes following its course and marveling at the jumps over a wooden box inlaid with mother-of-pearl, porcelain figurines of ships at sea, models of feathered birds in cages, and ballerinas inside glass domes. The menagerie mesmerized Ruthie as she imagined the painted horse maneuvering through this fantastic collection. It looked like a tiny extravaganza of unlikely circus acts. Ruthie’s eyes lit up as Miss Flannigan tried to pull her past them into the kitchen for pancakes.
Ruthie planted her feet and turned her head to look back at the beautiful trinkets. “What are those?”
“Oh, those? Why, they’re music boxes.”
Only a few of them looked like boxes. Ruthie asked, “All of them?”
“Finally brought them down from the attic.”
Ruthie moved a little closer to the music boxes and cupped a hand to her ear, but she couldn’t hear any music. She noticed the windup keys. Thinking them knobs to adjust the volume, she reached out a hand toward a brown-skinned statuette in a grass skirt.
Miss Flannigan clasped her fingers on Ruthie’s shoulder and turned her back toward the kitchen. “You mustn’t touch them. They’re Mother’s pride and joy. Don’t know what I’d do if they broke. They range from one of a kind, to very fragile, to irreplaceable. I set them up here, hoping they’d spark memories.” She pointed to her mother in the other room. “But she barely notices them.” Miss Flannigan’s eyelids drooped as if they were suddenly heavy with sleep.
Ruthie glanced through the doorway on the right, to the wing chair by the window in the corner. She saw a pile of knitted afghans topped by a dome of white cotton candy. It took her a few seconds to realize a person sat under those blankets; it was Old Mrs. Flannigan, resting her eyes. The woman snored, a faint fizzle with each inhale. Every old person Ruthie had ever seen before this moment had been awake. She pictured the old man she’d seen at Friday night services, clicking his dentures in and out as he rocked to and fro above his prayer book. It had grossed her out so much that she had even lost her appetite for cookies and tea at the Kiddush in the rabbi’s study. The only thing moving on Old Mrs. Flannigan was a slight nudge of the blanket on her chest with each wheezy breath as if it were prodding Ruthie to look in the direction of the table with the music boxes.
Ruthie wanted to know more about the music boxes, but the questions forming in her mind caught in her throat like a hairbrush in tangled curls. She was fortunate, really, that a sort of fear of old people—that they might be the boogiemen that lurked under the bed in the dark or that whatever illness made them so frail might be catchy—was all that registered. So, she hurried, held her breath as she walked by the old lady wrapped in blankets, and continued to the kitchen.
“I like pancakes.” Ruthie sat down at a place set with a neatly folded paper napkin, a glass of orange juice, a taller glass of milk, and a plate with tiny blue flowers circling the perimeter.
Miss Flannigan was still staring in the direction of the music boxes in the hallway, but not right at them—through them, through the window, through the picket fence in the yard, through the weeping willow, through the valley, and clear beyond the Colchester border, all the way across the ocean to Spain, which Ruthie had just learned was where Christopher Columbus had set sail.
After a few weeks, Ruthie fell into her new routine of staying at Bea Flannigan’s house until Dad got home. First Ruthie snacked on waffles with syrup or fudgy brownies and milk at the kitchen table. Then, she colored in a coloring book or made a collage. At home she used to set up a TV tray and snack on peanut butter and crackers in front of reruns on Channel 56 until supper time. Miss Flannigan’s only television lived in her bedroom, where Ruthie never ventured. She didn’t mind. She liked staring at the music boxes. Not bold enough to just go ahead and wind up the menagerie, Ruthie gazed at the collection, intermittently invaded by a glimpse of Old Mrs. Flannigan. Deep wrinkles ran like quilted seams from under her nostrils to the corners of her lips. She barely moved, as if she were a snoring scarecrow in the wing chair. As Ruthie scooted her bottom a little closer to the music boxes, the old woman shifted in her chair, causing Ruthie’s skin to jump and the rest of her to freeze in place. Every time Ruthie tried to inch closer to the music boxes, the woman would move a little. Each time the old woman’s shoulder twitched or lip sputtered, Ruthie’s arm raised goosebumps. She had an inexplicable feeling that a ghoulish ogre hid beneath those deep wrinkles. She didn’t want to do anything to awaken whatever monster might be lurking inside.
One day, after Miss Flannigan finished the business of her mother’s creamed corn and sponge bath, she wound up one of the music boxes and turned on the radio to keep the old woman company, while she and Ruthie played “Go Fish.” After a few hands of cards, they checked on her only to find static on the radio and Old Mrs. Flannigan in a heap on the floor next to the bed. Ruthie lingered in the doorway, while Miss F rushed to her mother’s side, preparing for the possibility of touching a lifeless, cold body.
Old Mrs. Flannigan didn’t move. She lay on the floor with her head turned to the side. Translucent skin hung on her cheekbone, forming a peculiar bluish hollow.
Miss F held her breath. Her hand shook as her fingers approached the cheek. Ruthie braced herself, thinking the hollow must feel as cold and hard as steel. Miss Flannigan brushed the cheekbone ever so lightly. “It’s warm.” She pressed her lips to her mother’s forehead.
“Can she stand by herself? How will you get her up?” asked Ruthie, who had heard the noise.
“You sure you don’t need my help?”
“Positive. Watch.” Miss Flannigan locked her arms under her mother’s armpits and in front of her chest. Supporting her mother’s head with her body, she dragged her mother over and helped her back into bed. “See. Easy as punch.” When Miss Flannigan smoothed her mother’s flossy hair, the woman blinked a few times, looked at her daughter, and smiled.
Miss Flannigan uttered the words “Bless your heart,” unable to meet her mother’s eyes. “For a second I thought…” Her eyes brightened, a hint of a smile that dissipated as dentures in a glass seemed to catch her eye. “Time to grind Mother’s pills and feed them to her in applesauce.”
“You’re really strong,” said Ruthie.
“All in a day’s work,” said Miss Flannigan. “We achieve what we’re called on to achieve.” Slouching and furrowing her brow, she ran her hand across the foot of the mattress in one direction and then in the other, smoothing the bedspread, as if contemplating which was worse—a mother who stays long enough to become her daughter’s helpless charge or a mother who disappears too soon.
Ruthie smiled at her.
Miss Flannigan pulled the quilt up, tucked it under her mother’s chin, and walked past Ruthie out the bedroom door, not searching for more signs of life from the old lady.
Miss Flannigan began telling Ruthie stories. She told Ruthie a story about her mother hiking down to Chapman Pond with her for swimming lessons in July. She told too that her mother missed not a one of her piano recitals when she was a girl. These stories made Ruthie wonder what it must have been like when Miss Flannigan was growing up. Miss Flannigan commented, “God couldn’t be everywhere at once, so He made Mother.” Impossible to tell whether this was a compliment or an insult. Ruthie wondered what it must be like to have a mother who never left you, even when you’re old.
Miss Flannigan took a break from the chatting to tend to the bedpans and to feed Old Mrs. Flannigan pureed corned beef and squished-up winter squash. Ruthie busied herself flipping through the funny pages. She perused Andy Capp, even though she didn’t really understand what was so funny about a wife who stayed with a lazy, drunken, womanizing husband. She pictured a three-frame strip: Frame one. Mom packing a suitcase. Frame two. Dad standing in the hallway with Little Orphan Annie pupil-less eyes and squiggly worry lines on his forehead, and Ruthie running through the house, leaving a Family Circus-style trail. And frame three. The back of Mom’s head and the tail fins of a Cadillac zooming down Route Two, speech bubble reading, “I’m done here.” If people laughed at a drunken wife beater, they’d probably think a strip called “Ruthie’s Mom” would be hilarious.
After a while, Ruthie got used to the old person smell that filled the cottage. Ruthie stood a few feet in front of the wing chair. She kept some distance but stared at Old Mrs. Flannigan’s cloudy eyes. Ruthie stood on her tiptoes so that her button nose was level to the woman’s wrinkly, hooked nose. “What do you think she’s thinking in there,” Ruthie said. “Think she’s dreaming about her music boxes?”
“Hard to say,” answered Miss Flannigan.
“Maybe we could play the bluebird for her.”
Perhaps she wanted to fill the silence with the music from the music boxes. Perhaps she couldn’t resist anything forbidden. More likely, it was a combination of these desires, plus the hope for a window into what constituted treasure for the mysterious vegetative woman in the corner. The more time Ruthie spent at the yellow cottage, the more she wanted to play with the old woman’s treasured collection. The longer she made small talk with Miss Flannigan, the more likely she was to lead the conversation to a request to wind up a music box. The more Ruthie asked, asked, and asked some more, searching for answers that might help her make sense of how these tchotchkes that seemed so different from one another could form a cohesive collection.
“Do they play the same song?”
“Hmmm… Pretty sure they all play something different.”
“But can the same music box ever change its tune?”
“It plays the same one forever?”
“Yes. Forever and always.”
“Who gets to choose the song?”
Miss Flannigan patted Ruthie’s hand, shook her head, and said, “My, you’re the queen of curious. So many questions. Curious girl. Curious, curious, curious.”
Ruthie was at an age when she was attracting vocabulary like a magnet. As a result, she latched on to Miss Flannigan’s response in a way that made her change the syntax of her questions.
“Curious, how does the music get in there?” She stared at a bouquet of porcelain roses chiming “Let Me Call You Sweetheart,” and said, “Seems like magic to me.”
Miss Flannigan said, “Mostly mechanics and invention.” She smiled at Ruthie and rolled her eyes. “Okay, maybe a little magic.”
Ruthie asked, “Curious, what’s it look like inside?”
Miss Flannigan opened the lid of a music box that was actually a box, exposing the innards. Ruthie watched as Miss Flannigan took the thing apart.
Miss Flannigan said, “See these pieces? They’re what makes the music box play a song.”
Ruthie examined the tiny xylophone and a barrel-shaped thingy with notches, gears, springs, and stuff. The separate pieces looked as lackluster as the jars of nuts and bolts Dad kept in the basement. Trying to find music in that mess of parts was like looking at a human body and trying to find the soul. That pile of junk certainly didn’t look like anything that could bring music—or anything else—to life.
Ruthie picked up the little barrel-shaped part and held it up to the light. It was thicker than a Tootsie Roll, but thinner than one of the root beer-flavored hard candies her teacher gave out to students who clapped the erasers for her.
Miss Flannigan said, “That’s the cylinder. See the little doohickeys sticking out?”
Ruthie nodded, brushing her finger over tiny knobs, lightly—as if she were worried they might pop like soap bubbles.
Miss Flannigan pointed to a shimmering comb with teeth that started long at one end and got progressively shorter at the other. “When the cylinder turns around on the axle, those little pins pluck notes on the comb, here. It’s kind of like the little hammers inside a piano.”
Ruthie had never seen the inside of a piano, so the hammer comment didn’t make sense to her. However, as the comb reflected light, it sparkled in Ruthie’s eye. She asked, “Is that gold?”
Miss Flannigan answered, “Well, it’s golden,” placing an emphasis on the “en.”
Ruthie knew that golden was even better than gold. She’d heard about “golden” in stories like “Jack and the Beanstalk.” She was well aware that in stories, anything golden came from an enchanted goose that laid a golden egg. She also really wanted to think that golden meant magic. Even though Ruthie was supposed to be a big kid now, she continued to test the boundaries between real and make-believe magic. Earlier that week, she had spent the better part of an hour trying to use witchcraft to move her clothes from the floor to the hamper. When no amount of twitching her nose like Samantha on Bewitched worked, she worried that meant there was no such thing as magic. She wound one of her curls around a finger as she pondered this special ingredient of the music boxes. Perhaps she’d been wrong to doubt the magic she read about in books and watched on television. She looked at the golden sheen on the whole lot of gizmos, including the cylinder, and smiled. She smiled because she had figured out the secret that made these whimsical figurines come to life—the goose-that-laid-a-golden-egg gold. Otherwise, the things would never work. From then on, she was fascinated with testing this magic. The idea of winding them all up at once to conduct a music box orchestra sent a tingle of excitement that overflowed like the head on an ice-cream soda, sailing Ruthie right into the parlor, where she stood at the table. She started at the left and wound up a carousel with delicate, painted ponies, careful to click the switch to hold so she could get the entire collection wound and ready to go at once.
She looked back at old Mrs. Flannigan sitting in the chair across from the boxes. The woman stared into a spot on the crocheted afghan on her lap. Ruthie looked right at her. “You don’t mind if I play with your music boxes, do you?”
The woman raised her chin a hair and blinked a few times as if trying to focus on the question. However, without making more sound than a labored exhale and without making eye contact with Ruthie, she retreated to inner space. Ruthie interpreted this as the old lady’s permission. So, she proceeded to set up birds in cages, teddy bears swinging from a tree, a little Dalmatian chasing its tail. She located the tiny T-shaped key on the back of the Gorham clown figurine. She found the keys of the wooden, silver, and brass boxes hidden on the bottom. On each one in succession, she found a little button or latch that allowed her to wind it up and place the mechanics on hold, until she was ready to flick all the switches.
She picked up an oversized jewel-encrusted egg on a shiny gold stand and turned it in her hand, looking for a little T on the perimeter so she could wind it up. Nothing. When she tipped it to check the underside, instead of a windup key attached to the bottom, she found a folded square of paper stuck to the base with a strip of yellowed, cracked cellophane tape.
She looked out the window. Miss Flannigan was pinning a slip to the line, her laundry basket more than half full. She’d be a while. Ruthie unfolded the paper. Inside she found a silver cylinder, a miniature metal comb, and a swirly topped key with a hollow end like a straw from McDonald’s—extra parts.
Together we can fix anything, my dearest Margaret.
Ruthie looked at the old tired thing behind her in the chair. Somehow knowing the invalid’s first name, and that a man once loved her so much that he believed they could take on the world together made Ruthie feel like holding the old lady’s hand.
And she did.
She slid the palm of her hand lightly across Old Mrs. Flannigan’s blue-veined hand, the way Dad had taught her to be gentle with Felix when he was a kitten. “Niiiice. Niiiice. Niiice,” he used to say as he’d guided Ruthie’s hand to smooth the cat’s fur. Old Mrs. Flannigan’s hand felt softer than Ruthie imagined tissue paper-covered bones could feel.
As Old Mrs. Flannigan rested her eyes, Ruthie sidled next to the wing chair in front of the library table and flipped the switch of the bluebird first. “Zippity Doo Da” began to play. Ruthie switched on more music boxes, one after the other. The music tumbled, one song cartwheeling over another. Old Mrs. Flannigan’s face turned toward the sound, like a rooster’s crow, the eyes unblinking. She looked as if she might sing along. Ruthie sensed the harmony reaching Old Mrs. Flannigan’s eardrums.
Ruthie turned on more music boxes and listened to the jumbled notes. The old lady lifted her hand and patted the arm of the chair, releasing a giggle that sounded like the first notes of Beethoven’s “Fur Elise.” “This reminds me of that time,” she said, “when I was a girl…”
“Did you talk?” Ruthie asked the old woman. Her heart pounded. Nobody would believe it. “She said something,” Ruthie whispered, as if uttering the words would prove it was no hallucination. Would Miss Flannigan believe her? Would she be angry to have missed a chance to talk to her mother? But now, the old woman was sitting there with the same blank stare as usual. What if Miss Flannigan thought Ruthie was playing a trick on her? That was silly, Ruthie told herself. Ruthie was sure if she had even a slim chance to talk to her own mother, she’d want to know. She called loudly, “She said something. Come quick!”
Miss Flannigan stood in the doorway, watching and smiling. For the first time, Ruthie saw her babysitter as a girl, and old Mrs. Flannigan as a mother—a real mother who might laugh or hug or teach you the secrets of life.
Mrs. Flannigan’s eyes fluttered under her lids and a trace of a smile curved her lips. But nothing. Ruthie felt a certain power in coaxing out the inner world of this catatonic woman. She was like an artist’s muse. The satisfaction of inspiring fueled her desire to stir harder, to draw out old Mrs. Flannigan’s wisdom and kindness. Every afternoon for days after, Ruthie wound up the music boxes again and again, looking for another spark of life.
One day it happened, as notes tumbled over one another in a frenzied orchestration. It was as if someone had adjusted Old Mrs. Flannigan’s aerial antenna, allowing her to hear a clear signal instead of snowy static. Ruthie sat before her, stroking her hand and smiling.
Perhaps it was the music. Perhaps it was the hand holding. Or some strange combination of the two that had the effect of awakening the old woman like a genie escaping a lamp. Her dim eyes met Ruthie’s eyes and brightened. Her spine straightened as words flowed from her lips as if she were merely continuing a conversation she’d started moments ago. “Sing a song from church,” she said.
“You’re back,” said Ruthie.
“From church, sing.”
“I don’t know any church songs.”
“Don’t know church songs? That’s silly. Everyone knows church songs.”
Ruthie was excited and confident to explain. “Well, I’m Jewish, so I don’t go to church.”
The old woman’s eyes narrowed, making the wrinkled skin at the corners collapse like an accordion. “Christ killer?”
“I never even killed a fly.”
“Don’t lie to me,” she snarled.
The spark of life shocked Ruthie, and the venom made her feel sick to her stomach. She remembered Dad’s strict warnings to mind and respect her elders. But what was she supposed to do when an elder was filled with hatred?
“Dirty Jew in my house and a dirty Jew across the street,” the old woman muttered.
Ruthie wasn’t sure what to make of the woman’s outburst. She didn’t know what was worse—that the old woman hated Jewish people or that she hated Ruthie’s family in particular. Ruthie did not think she wanted to know what else the old woman was thinking. Her stomach was in knots. She looked to her babysitter, Miss Flannigan, for guidance—for something. She saw Miss Flannigan’s hand cover her mouth and chin like a surgical mask. In the confusion, it was impossible to tell whether Miss Flannigan was masking horror or a giggle.
This was the instant Ruthie lost her innocence. There was no other explanation for what she did next. She’d never been the fighting type, but something about being confronted with the fear of being hated made her discover in her heart that some words are fighting words.
Ruthie beelined to the table where the music boxes were set. Out of sheer frustration and anger, she stretched her arm across the tabletop and waved it, shoving a couple of music boxes over the side, smashing a few more, one at a time. The ripples of a porcelain carousel horse’s mane felt cool against her fingers as she wrapped her fist around it. A bird in a cage clattered when it hit the floor, and then gasped a few strained notes as it rocked. She did not stop until she heard Miss Flannigan screaming. Ruthie stood there with a music box in her hand, ready to slam it onto the floor, staring at Miss Flannigan. Ruthie met Miss Flannigan’s eyes and froze in her tracks for a good long moment, before hightailing it out the front door, across the street, and all the way up the driveway of the Victorian with the wraparound porch. She entered the parlor and turned on the television. She sat on the brown tweed sofa and stared at the screen, watching reruns on channel fifty-six. Two sitcoms later, she heard Dad’s wingtips clack across the front hall. A hinge creaked—he was hanging his overcoat in the front hall closet—and her spine felt like ants were crawling up it, when she heard him holler, “Ruthie!”
Dad turned off the television in the parlor and stood in front of Ruthie, who sat on that sofa, her feet dangling above the braided rug. In his hands was a shoebox. He opened it.
“Ruthie,” he said, “what do you have to say for yourself?”
Ruthie shrugged her shoulders and glanced at the porcelain heads, bird wings, and other music box remnants.
“Ruthie,” he repeated.
“She called me a ‘dirty Jew,’ Dad. She said our family shouldn’t be here. Didn’t know what else to do.”
“Bea said that?” He stared into Ruthie’s eyes.
“No, the old lady.”
“You broke these because Bea’s mother said that?” He didn’t wait for an answer before continuing. “I understand why that made you upset, Ruthie. But Bea’s mother is senile. She doesn’t know what she’s saying. You need to sit down at the table right now, young lady, and write a letter of apology to Bea,” said Dad, “explain how you’re going to make this right.”
Ruthie didn’t budge.
“Right here. Write, now. Do as I say.”
Ruthie changed from a sitting position on the sofa to a more defiant reclining position. Dad pulled her by the arms to a standing position, stood behind her with his hands on her shoulders, and marched her into the kitchen. “Sit there. I’ll get you paper and a pen. Write that apology while I get supper ready.” While Dad opened a can of peas, peeled and boiled two potatoes, and fried a couple of hamburger patties in a cast-iron pan, Ruthie wrote,
TO: MISS F
FROM: RUTHIE R
I’M SORRY I BROKE YOUR MOM’S MUSIC BOXES.
I’M NOT DIRTY.
FORGIVE ME, PLEASE.
Ruthie hand-delivered the note, per Dad’s orders. Safely in the front hall, dumbstruck and goosebumps rising on her arms, she looked back. The old woman hadn’t changed, propped on pillows and frail, but when Ruthie strained her ears, she thought she heard the old woman say something. Hiss. A small, almost imperceptible sound, and the cottage fell quiet.
Story by Lisa L. Leibow
Photo by Flickr/Ben Britten