“Red dilled tomatoes for breakfast?”
My grandfather’s head hovered over the opening of a large glass pickling jar as he inhaled his favourite Russian delicacy. Dilled green tomatoes were normal, but red seemed to me to be eccentric. My family pickled everything, even watermelon. “It’s for any time,” my grandfather said, grunting with pleasure. Without pause to breathe, he fished out one more juicy red and popped it whole into his mouth. “Oy,” he said, as he swallowed and smacked his lips together, “it’s delicious.”
Open jars full of fleshy red tomatoes were lined up on the kitchen table. Ropes of dill sat beside each jar soaking my mother’s white embroidered tablecloth. A strong smell of garlic rolled off my grandfather. He swished around in the brine, squeezed a few tomatoes and triumphantly plucked one out.
“A beauty,” he said. “It’s perfect.”
“Who is it for?” I asked.
Licking the juices running down his fingers, he looked up at me with a big smile and said, “Doba.”
- • •
My great aunt Doba was arriving from Russia that afternoon. I had just turned sixteen a few months before, passed my driver’s licence, straightened my hair and started wearing makeup. We were studying revolutionary Russia at school and had watched Doctor Zhivago in class. I attributed the love between Laura and Zhivago to the revolutionary furor of the times and desperately wanted to experience that kind of searing love. For a few weeks I espoused revolutionary and communist rhetoric at home. I talked about exploitation when my father talked about profits. My grandfather, who had abandoned most things Russian, dismissed my rants with, “Don’t be crazy,” or “You don’t know what you’re talking about.”
In a family of capitalists, I was looking forward to having a communist comrade. In my reverie, I imagined my aunt stepping off the plane with Zhivago’s child, a book of his poetry tucked under her arm. But in reality, Doba lived alone in Russia. For years she refused to immigrate to Canada, insisting that she couldn’t leave the graves of her three sons to a future of vandalism and decay.
She stood at the entrance, hidden, despite the oppressive heat, by a black wool dress, holding her one small satchel.
My grandfather sent her monthly packages: food bundled inside clothing, money sewn into the sleeves of old threadbare jackets, hidden in pockets and in the soles of worn-out shoes. He never knew if these packages would reach her given that the KGB scrutinized each piece of mail, but since Doba survived from package to package, my grandfather risked sending them out. When the regime finally loosened its reins on Jewish emigration, my grandfather sent her an invitation via first class post. The Russian officials acquiesced, and Doba agreed to live with her Canadian family in our house, in the basement bedroom that I sometimes used when my friends slept over.
- • •
My mother sent me to pick up pastries and cakes from Robert’s Kosher Sephardic Bakery.
“Doba will be hungry,” she said. “People starve in Russia.”
I dressed carefully, wearing my favourite revolutionary outfit—long blue jeans fraying on the bottom and a black V-neck sweater underneath a Nehru-collared jacket, my unruly black hair pulled back into a ponytail. My style was more Mao than Stalin, but Doba wouldn’t mind and I hoped that Joseph, the baker’s son, would find me exotic.
Joseph was in the kitchen at the back of the store. He was humming to himself as he iced a multi-tiered wedding cake. He watched me as I entered the store, icing without looking. He winked at me and mouthed, “Good morning.” My body began to burn.
Robert’s Bakery was owned by the Serfaty family, Moroccan Jews. They spoke French and, although they weren’t Orthodox, their baking was. Their non-dairy parve cakes were famous amongst the upwardly mobile Orthodox Jews for being as rich as any of those made from butter and cream.
“Mrs. Firestone’s daughter,” Mrs. Serfaty announced, catching me ogling her son. She smiled before hollering into the back, “Joseph! Get the order for Mrs. Firestone!” She looked me up and down with a mother’s stern eye then added: “Her lovely daughter is here.” I blushed.
Joseph emerged from the back room balancing a tower, one cake box stacked higher than the next. He’d arranged them in an illogical manner—not according to size but to whim, so that one box sat precariously on top of the other. Joseph had large Omar Sharif eyes, black hair and tanned skin. He smelled like fresh bread. He handed me the stack of cakes, but I was mesmerized with him beside me. Joseph laughed—his eyes twinkled with mischief as he took my hand and placed it on the top box then curled my fingers around the white string—the very string my grandfather would use to wrap around the bundles of clothing he sent to Russia.
A tingling swept up my arm and went directly to my heart. I gasped and couldn’t grip the string or carry the boxes or even move. If I budged, I was sure I would drop the cakes and flatten them beyond recognition. A long line of young, humbly dressed Orthodox women—hair covered and jostling their infants—had formed and were waiting to be served. The women’s impassive eyes staring at my immodest clothing and exposed head made me feel as if I were a disbeliever, a goy, and made me want to get out of there. I swung the cakes off the counter, smiled politely at Joseph, mumbled thank you and left.
“Good-bye, Mrs. Firestone’s daughter,” was the last thing I heard Joseph say as the door closed behind me.
- • •
When I returned home, there were six cars full of aunts and uncles and cousins crowding our circular driveway. I parked on the side of the road in front of our house. A stand of birch trees blocked my view, but I could hear my father and his two brothers arguing. Their voices were carried on the light breeze and soared above the trees.
I walked up the driveway.
“We should take the highway,” my father said.
“But the traffic will be terrible, so we should stay off the highway,” Uncle Frank said as he jiggled the change in his pocket.
“What do you know? The traffic is bad, but even still, the highway is always the fastest way there,” said Uncle Sol, the middle brother. “We should do both. First, go around, then get on the highway later.”
“Are you crazy?” yelled Uncle Frank, his voice tightening as it grew in volume.
“Who are you calling crazy?” asked Uncle Sol.
“Enough,” said my father. “We’re talking about a drive, not Hitler or Stalin.”
“Yossi,” my grandfather said. “Come.”
“Okay Pa,” my father answered. End of discussion. The leader had been chosen.
As we proceeded west on Highway 401, I turned around to see my uncles, aunts and cousins flailing their arms around. We were sufficiently far enough away from them that I couldn’t hear them. But I knew they were screaming: “Where the hell are you going? It’s the wrong way!” Oblivious to the commotion he had caused, my grandfather sat in the middle seat, focused on the road in front of him, with a gallon of red dills perched between his thighs. “Gold,” he said. “Russian gold.” He put a cigarette between his lips and let it dangle. “Doba,” he said gently, “she’ll like it.”
- • •
We arrived at the airport an hour early, just in case. My grandfather stood in front of the frosted glass doors, straining to see each passenger as they exited after clearing customs.
“Pa,” my father said. “Sit.”
My grandfather silenced him with a stern look. He wanted to be standing when he met his past.
I paced back and forth in front of the doors waiting for my great aunt, but consumed by thoughts of Joseph. Pins and needles, I still buzzed. I shook the blood back into my hand, breathed deeply and tried to quiet my heart. My experience with men was limited to a failed relationship with a small-time petty pusher, short, cute and stupid. We had spent the entire summer in basements. My boyfriend and his friends would smoke up while I watched. My boyfriend didn’t mind that I didn’t smoke so long as I let him put his hands wherever he wanted. He’d get high and horny. He’d touch my breasts while kissing me and arch his groin into my leg. I would stay still as a statue, worried that he might want to go all the way. I had wondered how long he’d put up with kissing and dry humping. Weeks before Doba arrived, I walked around the house practising Russian. I begged my grandfather to teach me a few words. But he said that even if he could live forever, he would never go back to Russia and he would never again speak that language. I gave up begging him for new words and concentrated on saying “da” and “nyet” with the best Russian accent I could. One night when my boyfriend asked me to go all the way I said, “Nyet.” He said he didn’t understand the language and that he didn’t understand me, so he broke up with me on the spot. Joseph, I was sure, was more sophisticated. He had more promise. After all, he had a French accent.
When notice of Doba’s plane landing blinked across the screen, the tribe of us gathered in one spot beside my grandfather. He pulled a small black and white photo of Doba as a young woman out of his pocket and compared that image with each and every passenger filing through the doors. No. No. No.
“Doba,” my grandfather yelled. “Doba!” She stood at the entrance, hidden, despite the oppressive heat, by a black wool dress, holding her one small satchel. Fifty years had passed since the photo, but her face, now covered with wrinkles and lines and layers of flesh on her jaw line, was recognizable. An anxious look was frozen across her face. She looked like a child. Lost.
Doba searched the crowd, her eyes darting from one end of the hall to the other. After glossing over each family member, she squinted and then traced my grandfather’s face with her eyes. Her lip quivered. Recognition. Tears spilled down her cheeks. My grandfather beckoned her over with a slight flourish of his hand. Doba stayed in her place, rigid with fear. My grandfather stepped over the roped-off boundary and marched toward her clutching his glass bottle. As he advanced, Doba retreated, until she was up against the glass barrier as if she were waiting for the guns, for the police, for someone to order her to move, for someone to shoot. My grandfather put down the jar and held his hands open. He softly called her name. He said a few things to her in Russian to put her at ease. Doba put down her satchel. My grandfather moved forward to embrace her. They had a quick and efficient hug.
I noticed everything that was wrong with me. I looked young and unsophisticated.
Doba came from Russia with bad teeth. Some gold, some black and some missing. Doba barely spoke English. She opened her mouth wide and smiled broadly while nodding her head emphatically at everything that was said to her. “How was your flight, Doba? Are you hungry, Doba? Do you have to go to the bathroom, Doba?”
After the drive home, and after we ate coffee and cake around the kitchen table, I showed Doba to her new room. Like a little girl stalling for time, Doba dragged her hand over every surface as we made our way from the kitchen, through the large foyer, and down the stairs. Doba kept smiling and shaking her head back and forth in disbelief.
When we got to her room I said, “Doba, this is your room.”
“Your r-r-r-r . . .” she tried.
“No,” I said and took her hand and put it on her chest. “My room.”
“My room,” she repeated.
I introduced her to every part of the room. “My bed. My cushion. My floor. My drapes. My carpet. My lamp.” Doba repeated each word slowly in her broken, accented English.
Doba pulled out a picture of a vibrant young woman with fierce, dark eyes and bangs that cut across a large square face. The woman stared defiantly at the camera—inconvenienced by having her picture taken. She had a savage beauty about her.
“Doba?” I asked, pointing at her.
“No,” she said. And then very gently taking the photo out of my hand, she said, “Rifka. My,” she placed her hand on her chest, “sister.” Rifka was my grandmother. She died when I was two years old. Killed herself with an overdose of sleeping pills. It was my father who found her.
Doba placed the picture beside her bed. She showed me more pictures of her sons, handsome young boys with the same dark, intense family eyes. As I left her room she took my face in her hands and held it tight. She said a few things in Russian that I didn’t understand, but I nodded as if I did. Then she stared into my face for a long time. I could see my grandmother’s eyes, her son’s eyes and my own eyes all reflected in hers.
- • •
The next night at dinner, I ate quickly.
“Sarah,” my father said, “there is plenty. You don’t have to eat so fast? What will Doba think of us? That we’re barbarians?”
At the mention of her name, Doba smiled with a mouth full of food.
“I’m eating fast,” I said, “so I can call Rochelle and finish up our project on revolutionary Russia.” I lied.
My grandfather tsked at the mention of revolution and at the mention of Russia.
While the rest of my family lingered over a meal of borscht and stewed chicken, I called Joseph. Locked in my parents’ bedroom, I stood beside the phone, looking at myself in the large mirror that covered an entire wall. My heart beat wildly as I waited for the first ring. In an attempt to calm myself, I focused on my reflection in the mirror. I noticed everything that was wrong with me. I looked young and unsophisticated. My hair was a mass of tangled curls and my eyes were too close together. At least Joseph couldn’t see me.
One ring. I straightened my back.
Two rings. I adjusted my blouse, angling it to one side so the top of my shoulder was exposed. This was my idea of risqué.
I fluffed my hair, tossed it from my eyes.
“Robert’s Bakery,” a young man answered.
“Hello,” I said.
His voice was gentle with a slight French accent.
“Hi,” I said, again.
“Would you like to place an order?”
“Cakes. You want to order some?”
“Would you like to place an order?”
For the third time I said, “Hello.”
“Hello.” He cleared his throat.
“Is this Robert’s son?” And before he had a chance to answer I blurted out, “This is Mrs. Firestone’s daughter.”
There was a long pause. Then a sigh. Another pause. I could hear his rapid breathing and the chime of the bell that went off every time the store door opened.
“This is Robert’s son,” he said, slowly.
I could hardly breathe.
“Joseph,” he added. His voice was smooth and calming and sent a thrill right through me, causing the hairs on my arms to stand straight up.
“Hello, Joseph,” I said. “My name is Sarah.”
There was another pause that felt like eternity.
“Ah, Sarah. So, you want to order some cakes?”
I hadn’t thought this far ahead and didn’t know what to say.
He continued. “You want to add to your mother’s usual order?” And then he paused and I felt as if I was right beside him. I could imagine the curious look on his face as he talked to me. His voice betrayed a hint of puzzlement. A drop of uncertainty—he was on unfamiliar ground. “Or is this specially for you?”
I let out a tiny gasp and sat on the bed.
“Is it?” he pressed.
I could hear his mother in the background asking him to come. He covered the mouthpiece and mumbled something to her, but I couldn’t make it out.
“Well,” I said. The doorknob to my parents’ room turned. I stood up.
“Yes,” Joseph said. “What would you like?”
“I would like . . .” I swallowed. “I would like to have coffee with you.” I blurted it out then held my breath and waited for him to respond.
“Joseph!” His mother called to him.
“One minute,” he answered. And then to me: “Okay, I’ll pick you up in an hour.”
Joseph hung up without another word. I stood looking at the receiver, as if it had some unseen power. Then, coming to my senses, I slammed the receiver down and bolted out of the room. I’d have to get ready; he would be here in an hour!
- • •
Downstairs, my grandfather had cornered Doba in his kitchen office, where he sat and read the Yiddish paper and answered the phone. He was holding his false teeth in his hands.
“See,” he said showing her how well they worked, slipping them in and out of his mouth, practically hands free. “A perfect fit.”
“No,” said Doba. Her hands were clasped tightly over her mouth and she looked horrified. My grandfather began to bite into hard foods: apples and carrots, anything to prove the durability of his new bought-and-paid-for teeth. It was when he threatened to bite through a piece of wood that my father intervened.
“Pa,” he said. “You’re frightening her.”
“Fright-en-ing,” Doba repeated.
My grandfather moved towards the main floor powder room.
“Come,” he said to Doba.
“No!” she said, defiantly.
“Don’t be silly, Doba. Come. Look.”
Doba sat down in her chair and refused to budge.
“Sarah, tell her to come and look,” my grandfather pleaded.
“Zeyde,” I said, “leave her alone.” I was desperate to get ready for Joseph.
“Oy,” he said, “you too.”
My grandfather began to drag her chair out of the kitchen and into the hallway.
“Pa!” my father said.
“Don’t mix into my business.”
Doba held onto the bottom of the chair and screamed, “Oy, Oy, Oy!”
One cry built on the other, crescendoing in a mournful, gut-wrenching wail. I covered my ears to block out the sound. My father stood up, my grandfather waved him off.
“Stand up,” my grandfather ordered Doba.
“Zeyde,” I pleaded. “Stop. You’re upsetting her.”
He tried to drag her to her feet. Doba grabbed my hand and begged me to stay.
“Sarah, Sarah. Oy, oy, oy! “
When the doorbell rang we all jumped. I walked to the door with Doba attached; she wouldn’t let go of my hand. I opened the door and invited Joseph inside.
My grandfather looked at Joseph and then shuffled off to the kitchen, giving Doba a reprieve. I introduced Joseph to my father and then to Doba. My father said a polite hello and Doba covered her mouth and bowed her head.
“I’ll be home in an hour,” I yelled as I peeled Doba’s hand off mine and said, “I promise.”
- • •
Joseph picked me up in the large white bakery van used to make cake deliveries. I let myself in the passenger’s side and slid into the ripped leather seat. There were two seats in the front before a long cab full of white boxes for weddings, bar mitzvahs and brises: deliveries he’d have to make now. I realized that this was our date.
Joseph drove me around the city stopping at the various synagogues that had ordered his goods for their morning events. He explained that the recipes they used at the bakery were secrets handed down from his paternal grandmother, who used to supply the whole Sephardic community in Morocco with cakes. The recipes had passed down to his father, who was a master baker, to his mother and, finally, to him. His sisters had children to raise and no time for the bakery where Joseph headed every morning at four, to fire up the ovens for the day.
Joseph’s descriptions of large vats of dark chocolate swirling into white cake mix made me hungry. After driving through every Orthodox section of the city, he took me back to his apartment. Joseph lived on the third floor of a six-floor walk-up. His apartment was empty except for a large mattress spread out in the middle of the living room. A map of Morocco, the country he had emigrated from, was pinned onto a large square corkboard attached to his wall.
Joseph stared at me, almost through me. “Mrs. Firestone’s daughter,” he said. “What would you like to order?” He laughed and began undoing his shirt. The sight of his naked skin caught me off guard. I backed away. “Come on,” he said. “You have to want something.” He moved forward. He flashed a big white-toothed smile at me. I thought of Doba’s guarded smile, her lips protecting her decaying teeth from view.
“Could I have a glass of water?” I asked. My mouth was parched, my heart beating way too fast.
“Sure. If that’s what you want to have, you can have it.”
He put one hand on his belt and left it there as he backed into the kitchen, grabbed a glass with his other hand and flipped open the tap so it drained into the glass.
The glass hovered at crotch level.
I closed my eyes and tried to remember him in his bakery hat and white apron behind the bakery counter. I had often imagined myself leaping over the counter for Joseph. But here in his living room there was nothing between us.
“I want to go home,” I said.
He sighed and unhooked his belt.
“Maybe you should just take me home,” I said.
Joseph undid his belt buckle and the top button of his trousers.
“Yeah, back to my place.”
He paused. Ran his hand through his cropped hair, his tongue worrying his mouth as he surveyed the room. I backed away towards the door. He snapped his head around, his eyes landing on my hand resting on the door latch.
“You don’t have to go,” he said.
“I’ll take you back, after.”
He began to slowly unzip.
“I have to go back to Doba,” I said. “She’s all alone.”
“She’s fine,” he said.
“She’s scared. In fact terrified.”
There was a long moment during which Joseph didn’t move. He was going over his options. And I was going over mine. His eyes softened. He zipped up his pants, buttoned his shirt and drove me all the way home.
- • •
Doba was sitting in the kitchen, staring out the window, when Joseph dropped me off. It was morning, Russian time. It pained me to think that this was her morning ritual, looking out into nothingness—where were all her comrades when she needed them? Of course she was better off in Canada. Doba acknowledged me with a small nod and I went into the kitchen to see her.
“Doba. Comrade.” I said. “U tebja vsjov porjadke? How are you?” Her face lightened and then immediately fell. She shrugged her shoulders and then they heaved. A torrent of tears fell onto the table beneath her, onto a picture of her three smiling boys. I picked the picture up and looked at my cousins. All of them dead.
- • •
A few weeks later, Doba arrived home with a swollen face. My grandfather had won. Doba smiled nervously, then winced in pain. In her hand she held a small package containing her teeth. Blood-drenched cotton gauze stuck to her gums.
“Does it hurt?” I asked.
“Hurt,” she repeated.
“Ouch,” I tried to explain.
“Ouch,” she repeated.
“Hurt, ouch,” I said, pointing to her mouth.
And finally she said, “Da. Hurt. Ouch.” And then she began to wail, “Oy, oy, oy!”
The swelling went down after a few days, though the bruising took weeks to disappear. All Doba could eat were liquids or solid foods that had been blended into mush. Doba retreated to her basement bedroom. She refused to come and have her meals with us. I was the only one she talked to, the only one she’d agree to see. She slept during the day and sat by the kitchen window at night. Her English was rudimentary but she made no effort to learn new words. It didn’t matter because she had descended into a state of silence. It was hard to tell if she wouldn’t, or couldn’t speak.
- • •
It was during this period of her solitude that Doba and I spent lots of time in her room getting to know one another. In truth we spent a lot of time doing nothing, but somehow this made me feel closer to her. We would sit in her dark room—Doba insisted that the drapes be closed—while she stared at a blank wall and I watched her. My mother assumed I was teaching her English, but Doba’s interest in the language had waned. Sometimes I’d bring my homework downstairs and read about Marx, Lenin and Trotsky. I’d try to tell Doba about them and the importance of the revolution, at least the way I saw it, but just the mention of Stalin was enough to make her take out the picture of her sons and rock back and forth on the bed as she looked at them.
One day, in an attempt to lift her spirits and get her out of the house, I took Doba to school for show-and-tell. I felt sorry for her and hoped she’d enjoy meeting my friends. The title of my presentation was “Stalin and My Great Aunt.” Doba dressed carefully that morning, wearing a long black skirt and a multi-coloured shirt with tassels hanging off the neckline. She pulled her hair back into a bun; a line of bobby pins on each side kept any wayward hairs in place. She proudly took my arm as we walked the half-mile to my school. There I was walking with a real-life Russian Matryoshka nesting doll. We walked past the ravine and up to Bathurst Street. When crossing the road, Doba held my hand. Janice and Rachel, who normally walked with me, raced ahead, all the while looking back in alarm. Doba and I promenaded through the curving streets in the rich, robust autumn light.
Doba stood at the front of the room while I talked about the hardships in her life and her escape from Russia. Of course she had no idea what I was talking about. Still, she eagerly spread out pictures of her husband and children for the class to see. At the end of my presentation the class applauded. Doba beamed and she broke into a huge, toothless grin. At the sight of her bare gums the class erupted into laughter. Doba quickly covered her mouth with her right hand while clutching the pictures of her family in her left.
After two weeks, Doba got her full set of false teeth. For the first few days she had a perpetual smile plastered on her face and it seemed that her sadness had ended. But after three days, the smile faded again.
Doba became withdrawn and depressed. Every day she wore the same black dress with a square collar bordered in a worn piece of fake velvet. Thick, opaque support stockings were rolled down to her ankles. I rarely went to her room anymore. I couldn’t stand her sadness. She never smiled, and spent days weeping over the picture of her three young sons, all of them dead before the age I was now.
There were many discussions about her moving to a nursing home.
My parents were worried that in her depression she might hurt herself.
“She’ll be safer at the home,” they’d say.
“But will she be happier?”
I never got an answer.
A few weeks later, I got home from school, ran downstairs and found Doba packing. All of her possessions were crammed into one small suitcase, everything except her pictures of her children, which she had cut up into tiny little pieces and placed neatly at the side of her bed. My father and my grandfather were waiting upstairs to drive her to her new home. My father had used his connections and made arrangements for her. Doba marched solemnly up the stairs.
“Doba,” I called.
She kept walking. Without protest. Without a sound. Without turning back.
- • •
Home from school on the cold bleak February day one month after Doba was sent away, I found my grandfather sitting alone in the kitchen, an unopened jar of red dill tomatoes beside him.
“Zeyde,” I said, “what’s wrong?”
For a long while my grandfather didn’t answer. The dull grey light was turning to darkness.
My grandfather fumbled with his wire-rimmed reading glasses. He unhooked them one ear at a time.
“Toit,” he said. Dead.
“Doba?” I asked.
He nodded, then motioned to the jar of tomatoes. She had never even opened them. She had never eaten the tomatoes or lived any kind of life, or seen her children grow or grandchildren be born. My grandfather blotted his eyes with his hanky. I sank into a kitchen chair and swallowed my rage and tears.
- • •
That night my family gathered at our house, but I didn’t want to see them. I wanted to find Joseph; to be with Joseph. I waited in the alley in back of the bakery for him to close up. It was bitterly cold but I felt nothing. He turned the key one last time and tested the large steel door to be sure it was locked. I came up quietly behind him. He shuddered when I put one hand against his back and one over his mouth. He struggled to turn around, but relaxed when he saw me. He smiled, smiled as if sweetness were in his blood. His eyes were soft and inviting and so full of hope. I craved him. Craved his hope, and clung to him as he pinned me up against the side of the van and kissed me. My heart exploded. He unlatched the cargo door. He kissed my eyelids. He swept aside the cakes and trays to be delivered for morning prayers, and fell on top of me. Doba was dead. He licked my lips and gently parted them. Doba’s lips were cold. He kissed my face all over. Doba was going to be buried in the ground. He travelled down my body. There were so many things I wanted to ask Doba. How many sleeping pills did you take, Doba? Did dying hurt, Doba? He finger-hooked my panties and slid them down. Are you with your children now, Doba? Are you happy now, Doba? Did Stalin kill your whole family, Doba? And then bursting out of my mouth, “Oy, oy, oy. Oy, oy, oy.”