The Paisley Scarf
“Don’t fill her up on kukhn,” mother says to father, the last word making her nose wrinkle up as if she had smelled something bad. She frowns as she bends to kiss Sarah good-bye in the narrow foyer of their Bronx apartment, but relaxes her mouth enough to purse her lips and gently touch Sarah’s cheek. Father is already wearing his good jacket, and waits with one hand on the doorknob. Sarah can smell the sweat on mother’s neck and the dust on the rag she’s been using, which she still clutches. Father, saying nothing at all, opens the door, as mother straightens up and busies herself with the shelves on the credenza. Sarah thinks she should try to button her winter coat, but his eyes say, “We’re leaving now.”
The air outside is surprisingly mild and spring-like, almost too warm for the dressy coat which father has buttoned for her in their building’s lobby. Now he gives Sarah’s hand a squeeze and doesn’t let go.
“It’s a beautiful day for a little ride,” he says.
Her hand feels like a rider in a cushiony inflatable boat as they flow on the bus over the city streets and across the 181st Street Bridge into Washington Heights, where father’s mother, whom mother refuses to see—the grandmother Sarah herself has seen only a couple of barely remembered times before, when she was even smaller, and, like today, father insisted he take her—lives with one of her equally unfamiliar uncles. Father smiles at Sarah as they get off the bus. He crooks his elbow, so that she can reach up and hang on. In the elevator of grandmother’s building, he asks her if she would like to push the button for the fifth floor, and she does, though she feels a bit too old for the game. When the elevator bumps to a stop, she snuggles her fingers into his palm again, because she is afraid of crossing into the foreign and unblessed territory of her grandmother’s apartment; he gives her hand an answering clasp.
“Grandmother will be happy to see you,” father says. Sarah smiles up at him, but she is not at all sure why her grandmother should have any feelings about her at all.
Her father gives his signature rap with his ringed knuckle on grandmother’s door, and Sarah is somewhat surprised; she thought that rap was only meant for their small family’s door in the Bronx. This one opens on cavernous dimness smelling of scorched coffee and musty clothing. The home she has just left is full of light and freshness because mother snaps open the Venetian blinds every morning to let in the sun and airs the three rooms every Sunday, no matter how cold it is outside; every time mother opens the hall closet door to get a dust rag, the clean smells of tar paper and copious amounts of camphor waft to Sarah’s nose. Now her uncle slaps her father on his back; her grandmother waddles over and puts her two hands on the sides of her father’s face, pushing it to and fro. She doesn’t seem to know any English words, but mutters in the same language Sarah’s parents use when they don’t want her to understand, though she does, a little. Her uncles on her mother’s side (those grandparents are under the stones with the letters she cannot read in Brooklyn) would drop to one knee and give her a plush toy puppy or lamb or a little box of talcum powder decorated with flowers, but this uncle has already disappeared, and her grandmother doesn’t seem to know she is present.
They sit in the kitchen where the percolator is bubbling away. Her grandmother pours hot milk from a saucepan into father’s coffee. A skin has formed on top of the milk in the pan; it almost makes her gag to look at it. Mother always gives father cold milk from the refrigerator.
Now he blows on his steaming cup, then slurps and sighs contentedly. His shoulders drop. Her grandmother cuts another piece of the pale yellow cake father is dipping into his coffee. Her knife makes a raspy sound as she cuts. The cake doesn’t taste like cake; it is dry and hard in Sarah’s mouth and she wants to spit it back unto the plate, but she chews because father keeps patting the back of her head.
“A sheyne meydel,” her grandmother says to him.
“Say ‘thank you,’ a sheynem dank,” her father says to her, running a soft hand under her chin, his eyes lit. “Grandma says you’re a pretty girl.”
Sarah whispers the sounds quickly, not looking at her grandmother or her father. He finishes his coffee and takes her grandmother’s hands in his on top of the yellow oilcloth.
After a while her grandmother raises herself with difficulty from the kitchen chair and shuffles into another room. Sarah sees her through the open door, rummaging in a trunk. She comes out with a woolen paisley scarf in dark reds and blues and hands it to Sarah. It smells old and stale, and Sarah doesn’t want it, but she takes it, and says “A—sh—a sheynem dank.”
On the way home on the bus, father puts his arm around her shoulders and tells her he is proud of her. “How Much Is That Doggie in the Window” is playing on someone’s transistor radio, but Sarah doesn’t sing along, though she loves the chorus. She takes the scarf out of her coat pocket where she has wadded it up, folds it neatly, and holds it gently in her lap, like a pet.
“It’s supposed to get cold again this week,” father says. “That scarf will come in handy.”
Sarah takes her fingers out from under the scratchy wool and lets it sit by itself.
When father gives his signature rap on the door of their apartment, mother opens it immediately. Her hair is neatly combed and Sarah can smell the reassuring smells of Pine-Sol and chicken soup. Mother puts her arms around Sarah’s arms and holds her for many seconds, as if she’d snatched her from a threatening bully in the playground. Then she notices the material poking out of Sarah’s pocket.
“What’s this?” she says, plucking the scarf and holding it at a distance between thumb and forefinger.
“Grandma gave it to me,” Sarah says, looking up at father.
“Feh,” mother says, opening the hall closet door, and dropping the scarf into the bag of rags. Father’s lips are pressed together in a thin, vexed line. He strokes Sarah’s hair once, then stomps into the living room, and turns on the TV, painfully loud.
Mother whisks her fingers against each other as she walks into the kitchen.
Coat still on, Sarah stands in the hall, breathing in the smell of camphor and tar paper, her empty hands at her sides.
© Judy Kronenfeld
Judy Kronenfeld has published stories in The Madison Review, The North American Review, Literary Mama, and other magazines. Her creative nonfiction has appeared frequently in Under the Sun and has also been published in Hippocampus and Inlandia: A Literary Journey, among other places. She is the author of four full-length collections and two chapbooks of poetry, most recently, Bird Flying through the Banquet (FutureCycle, 2017). Her poems have appeared in numerous journals and anthologies.